By Rebecca Holcombe and Scott Giles
Fifty years ago, on Nov. 8, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act of 1965 into law. This historic act marked our first commitment to universal access to higher education, and represented one of the great achievements of the Civil Rights movement. Reflecting on the momentous occasion, President Johnson proclaimed: “This legislation passed by this Congress will swing open a new door for the young people of America. For them, and for this entire land of ours, it is the most important door that will ever open—the door to education. And this legislation is the key which unlocks it. To thousands of young men and women, this act means the path of knowledge is open to all that have the determination to walk it.”
Unfortunately, for too many Vermonters this is a journey still unfulfilled. Our nation, once the international leader in access to higher education, has fallen below the average for developed nations in less than 13 years.
Despite having one of the highest levels of high school completion in the country, Vermont’s college-going rates lag behind those of the nation as a whole, and lag the most for boys whose parents did not go to college.
Having just returned from the White House “Reach Higher” summit, a gathering of education leaders from across the country, we had an opportunity to discuss strategies and best practices to enable more students to pursue the education and training they need after high school.
New data from the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. suggests when parents support and encourage their children to pursue postsecondary education, and when students have had exposure to higher-quality education, including advanced math (algebra II or higher), they are as likely to persevere in college as are students from more affluent backgrounds whose parents also went to college.
What can parents do?
Parents can help their children understand that completing a degree or nationally recognized certification opens up valuable opportunities beyond high school. Parents can talk with their children in middle school as they are forming their aspirations and expectations. And most of all, parents can emphasize that their children deserve the kinds of opportunities that come with postsecondary education.
What are we doing?
New education policy tools in Act 77 of 2013 and the Education Quality Standards provide the tools and opportunities to better support postsecondary aspirations in our young people. Act 77 gives our children access to college courses while they are in high school, so they can all see themselves as capable and worthy of postsecondary education. Act 77 also provides opportunities for work-based learning and career and technical education, which is where many of our first-generation boys can develop high levels of skill, especially in mathematics, through applied learning.
Starting this school year, every seventh grader will have a personalized learning plan, developed by educators in collaboration with the student and parents. The planning process should help students clarify their aspirational goals beyond school, then map out the courses and opportunities to learn and provide the support each child needs to realize those goals.
It’s a collective effort. Together we can help keep children on track by strengthening their commitment to pursue higher education. Vermont’s future economic and civic vitality depends on it, because better-educated Vermonters:
Earn more, pay more in taxes and save more for retirement;
Have better health outcomes and are more likely to have time to invest in their communities;
Raise children who are more likely to perform well in school and pursue college themselves; and
Have higher employment rates and fewer demands for social services.
And on that historic occasion 50 years ago, President Johnson’s closing remarks made a promise we must uphold: “I want you to go back and say to your children and to your grandchildren, and those who come after you and follow you—tell them that we have made a promise to them. Tell them that the truth is here for them to seek. And tell them that we have opened the road and we have pulled the gates down and the way is open, and we expect them to travel it.”
Rebecca Holcombe is secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education. Scott Giles is president and CEO of Vermont Student Assistance Corp.