Higher education seeing a shifting tide
MIDDLEBURY — Higher education opportunities like apprenticeships and community college are on the rise in Vermont, a state where 92 percent of students graduate from high school but only 37 percent of people aged 25 years or older have a bachelor’s degree.
It’s good news that more students who have opted not to attend a four-year school are seeking other means of higher education, but it’s still a bigger struggle for the multitude of available programs to attract those students than it should be.
It all starts with getting enough information to make a well-informed choice.
For some prospective students, the financial burden of college tuition appears too hefty to take on. That is, the sticker shock of tuition rates at schools like the University of Vermont, Castleton University or any of the state colleges seems impossible to afford, even though financial aid for certain students can reduce those fees substantially.
“For the students I’m dealing with, there’s money for them to go to college (in the form of financial aid), but they don’t know their options,” said David Roberts, Regional Manager of Vermont Adult Learning and founder of VT YouthWorks, adding that part of their goal is to bridge that information gap and help students make the best choices.
HIGHER ED OPTIONS
Other students simply aren’t interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree. But those who prefer to participate in apprenticeship programs, study at two-year colleges or technical schools, or pursue other paths can face judgment from their peers because of misconceptions and false stereotypes.
“There is a stigma associated with career and technical education, which acts as an obstacle to pursuing postsecondary interests,” said Dana Peterson, Interim Superintendent of Hannaford Career Center. “If those interests are not what’s expected, they’re overlooked.”
Students may also hold misconceptions about what careers and lifestyles will be available to them if they follow educational paths that don’t include a four-year college degree.
Apprenticeships and training in the trades (plumbers, electricians and carpenters, for example) can provide a higher standard of living than many jobs that require a bachelor’s degree.
“We’re trying to show students that (in many cases) you can make the same amount of money without a four-year degree (as with one),” said Fred Kenney, Executive Director of Addison County Economic Development Corporation.
“If we don’t tell students that jobs (that don’t require a bachelor’s degree) are honorable jobs that can provide a sustainable family life, they’re not going to be interested,” Roberts added.
But getting that message out to students has never been easy.
“There’s a clear path to college. There’s no easy path or system if you don’t want to go to college,” Roberts said.
“For some students, it’s been hard to find out about alternative options,” said Rob Carter, executive director of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce. “For a long time, you really had to dig on your own to find out what to do besides go to a four-year college.”
But that’s changing. A multitude of organizations across the county and state are working to publicize, simplify and improve those paths.
Roberts took on an additional organization in 2017: Vermont YouthWorks. Two years ago, he said, there were 450 unemployed Vermonters between the ages of 18-24. “That’s a lot of people,” Roberts noted, and added they are not easy to find or identify.
Consider the story of 22-year-old Arrien Gadue of Bristol.
Gadue always knew she wanted to do graphic design, but was not interested in college. She graduated from high school and was working at a local gas station when her mother, who works in education and social work, encouraged her to look into YouthWorks.
She enrolled in the program and has spent the last eight weeks preparing for a career in graphic design.
“YouthWorks has been amazing with getting me connections in the community,” Gadue said of her experience.
Roberts sees a lack of confidence as the biggest barrier many of his students face, one that students like Gadue can overcome with a bit of help.
“I felt like I didn’t have the ability to pursue my dream of being a graphic designer. I was too nervous and anxious,” Gadue recalled. “YouthWorks has made me realize that I can do it. It has really helped with my confidence and sense of self-worth.”
Throughout the county there are many programs that offer students such help. Here are a few:
• With the support of United Way of Addison County, Roberts created a paid eight-week summer program to teach young people job and social skills. Now, VT YouthWorks does three programs per year.
• Community College of Vermont offers apprenticeship programs, certifications, custom trainings for employers, credit and non-credit bearing courses. There is a local CCV based in downtown Middlebury.
• At the Hannaford Career Center, students can choose from 13 different technical training programs, from culinary arts to automotive technology, in addition to pre-tech foundation courses.
• At Vermont Adult Learning, students ages 16 and up can earn their high school diplomas, receive assistance transitioning into college, learn to read, improve computer skills, or learn English.
• There are many online courses available as well. Not all are credible, but CCV’s center for online learning is one example of a credible option.
Representatives from all of these organizations are working in collaboration with other local businesspeople in the Addison County Workforce Alliance (ACWA).
“When the state defunded regional workforce development organizations, groups like ACWA started to replace the state-sponsored ones,” Kenney explained.
The group aspires to “ensure a supply of trained and educated workers” by encouraging schools to change the way they approach workforce development, helping to grow apprenticeship and internship programs, regularly assessing employer needs and making sure people are educated and trained to match them.
“Learning and education are the foundations for the success and growth of our community,” Roberts said.
And all of these programs train students to serve indispensable roles in their communities. “We couldn’t live without electricians, carpenters, all these jobs,” said Sarah Soule, post-secondary planning coordinator at Middlebury Union High School.
And it’s a fact that many jobs are available in the trades.
“We have businesses who can’t grow because they can’t find employees,” Carter said. “We’re trying to break down barriers and show people what’s available in Vermont. You don’t have to leave (Vermont or your home town) to find jobs.”
MORE TO BE DONE
Despite the varied educational opportunities, for some there is still stigma to be overcome when choosing not to pursue a college degree — something these academic and vocational programs are addressing.
“We’re trying to get administrators, guidance counselors and teachers to change the culture around higher education and understand that there are different career pathways for different kids,” Kenney said. Programs at CCV, for example, are always adapting to the changing work environment.
“We’re constantly evolving… and responding to the needs of the community and Vermont,” said Michael Keogh, Business and Community Outreach Manager for CCV Workforce Education, noting that today’s economy requires working adults to be continuously learning as jobs come and go.
Through it all, the one point Peterson stressed is that there are several different pathways to success, not just getting a bachelor’s degree from college, and that people need to change their perspectives on alternative forms of education.
“We have to address folks who haven’t been well served in schools, turn around their mindset and get them reoriented on a pathway towards success,” Peterson said, which is what his programs and others hope to make happen.