Guest editorial: A recent grad's perspective on higher education today
Neither of my parents went to college. Yet, I can remember first considering higher education in second grade. I was only interested in careers with more than four syllables like paleontologist, anesthesiologist or archeologist. At that time, I was relatively aware of my family’s situation and the associated challenges, especially in the rural towns of Rutland County where I grew up.
Finishing college felt like the path to success and the key to financial security, even if I didn’t use those words at the time.
This past May, I completed my life-long aspiration when I graduated from Northern Vermont University with a degree in Environmental and Political Science. This summer, the Vermont Community Foundation in Middlebury hired me for a two-year position as the inaugural David Rahr Community Philanthropy Fellow (17 syllables for those keeping track). I work on the grant-making team, helping to direct grants and investments to make a difference in Vermont. It is inspiring to hear the many ways Vermonters are tackling the big issues.
As a part my training for the fellowship, I have learned a lot about the opportunity gap in Vermont and beyond. In a few words, the opportunity gap is marked by the lack of social and economic mobility among people born into poverty. This is, in part, because of the many advantages wealthier parents can afford for their children, including higher education.
But programs to break that cycle of poverty and get ahead do exist. Comparing my own accomplishment to recent data collected by VSAC (Vermont Student Assistance Corporation) about Vermont’s high school class of 2012, it seems I’ve beaten the odds: Only 16 percent of males who were first in their family to pursue college obtained a Bachelor’s degree within four years of graduating from high school.
How then, does American society promote social mobility?
According to Horace Mann, education, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of human conditions.
If this is the case, then creating greater access to higher education should be an all-important goal for communities and governments who care about their constituents.
In 2013, the Vermont legislature passed Act 77, which is currently doing what Horace Mann envisioned. Among other things, Act 77 created dual-enrollment, which allows every high school student in Vermont to take two free college classes at no cost. It also led to universal access to the early college programs, allowing a select number of seniors to finish their high school years with a full college course load. This means that students can graduate high school with up to 42 college credits — almost one third of the total needed for a diploma. That cuts the cost of obtaining a college degree substantially.
Growing up, I learned the value of these programs first-hand.
With the support available to me from Upward Bound, a branch of Trio, which is a national college-readiness program, I made use of the Dual Enrollment vouchers available to me. I took both of these classes through Castleton University and did quite well.
But obstacles do arise. When it came time to apply for Early College classes in the spring of my junior year of high school, I had a class-scheduling meeting with my guidance counselor who advised me to not pursue the opportunity and finish my senior year in high school because there would be many “more qualified” individuals applying and that it would be a very competitive process.
This news was disheartening. For that moment the confidence and enthusiasm I had for attending college was taken away.
Luckily, there was another form of support available to me that not everyone has the privilege to access. My Upward Bound director told me to apply, that I would have a strong application and to ask her for any help that I needed along the way.
One year later, I graduated from high school with 36 college credits and made the dean’s list both of my two semesters as an early college student.
Now, I am one of a few hundred students who have taken advantage of this opportunity. Collectively, Vermont students have saved in the range of millions of dollars.
Based on my experience, here is what I recommend:
• To legislators: Expand these opportunities. They are of great value. Ideally, expansions will focus on first-generation and/or economically disadvantaged populations as they face the most barriers to pursuing a degree — a crucial ingredient for economic success.
• To students: Take full advantage of all opportunities, find a community that will lift you up, apply for grants on time, and pursue every scholarship you qualify for.
• To adults/parents: Whether college or a certificate, encourage students to go beyond high school, they and society will be better off for it.
Brockton Corbett, a May 2019 graduate of Northern Vermont University who grew up in Wells and Poultney, is currently serving as the inaugural David Rahr Community Philanthropy Fellow at the Vermont Community Foundation.