By Sen. Bernie Sanders
The good news is that Vermont has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country; fully 88 percent of our kids leave high school with a diploma. All of us — parents, educators, community members and, most of all, our hardworking students — should feel great pride in that accomplishment.
The bad news is that Vermont is close to the bottom in terms of college enrollment rates. While nearly 75 percent of high school seniors say they want to pursue postsecondary education, just 53-59 percent (depending on the survey) actually enroll. Not surprisingly, the gap is widest for students whose parents didn’t attend college, students from low-income families, and students with disabilities.
Fifty years ago, if you received a high school degree, odds were that you could get a decent job and make it into the middle class. But that has changed. While not all middle-class jobs in today’s economy require a college degree or other forms of post-high school education, an increasing number do.
Moreover, the median worker with a bachelor’s degree will earn almost $1 million more over their career than the median worker with a high school diploma (the figure is $360,000 for the median worker with an associate’s degree).
Yet, while the U.S. once led the world in college graduation rates for young people, today we are in 11th place. We are falling further behind because the ever-rising cost of college requires many students to take on a mountain of debt. This year, nearly 70 percent of graduating college students will have some debt, and the average debt exceeds $30,000. We are placing a very heavy burden on our young people, before they even apply for their first jobs.
In the richest country in the world, everyone who has the ability and the desire should be able to get a higher education. That is why I introduced the College for All Act, which would eliminate tuition and fees at public colleges and universities, and substantially reduce student debt.
But in Vermont, cost is not the only reason for low college enrollment rates. If you’re the first person in your family to go to college, as my brother and I were, you might find yourself overwhelmed by the college application and financial aid process. There are hundreds of colleges out there. How do you find the one that is right for you? How do you get through the mountain of complicated financial aid forms? Once you are in college, how do you successfully fit into an environment that could be very different from home?
The U.S. Education Department funds some excellent programs in Vermont, like Upward Bound, Talent Search and GEAR UP. Over the years, these programs have been enormously successful in preparing students for college and providing support services so they stay enrolled and graduate.
But clearly, we must do more. I recently met with educators from across Vermont to identify ways to do just that. Here are a few of the conclusions that we reached.
First, we must let every child know from a young age — especially first generation and low-income Vermonters — that college is an option. Yes, even if your parents never went to college, or your family doesn’t have a lot of money, you can get a higher education. Psychologically, many children develop a sense of whether or not they will go to college by the 7th grade, so we must start the conversation early. Something as simple as an annual field trip to a local college, and a talk with students on campus, can spark the imagination of young Vermonters.
Secondly, we must do a better job supporting school guidance counselors. Today, many school counselors are spending much of their time reacting to disruptive classroom situations rather than providing help to students who are struggling with the college admissions process. Some schools in Vermont do not even have a single full-time counselor.
Third, we have to make sure all students and parents understand federal and state financial aid options and have the help they need navigating the forms. Vermont ranks near the bottom in terms of the rate of kids from poor districts applying for financial aid versus kids in wealthier districts.
Fourth, we have to do better in letting our young people know about the excellent college options right here in Vermont, and there are many. Just one of many examples: I recently visited Vermont Technical College, and was surprised to learn that 100 percent of VTC graduates either go on to further learning or get jobs — with an average salary of $43,600 a year. I was even more surprised to hear that VTC is under-enrolled.
Like any complex problem, there is not one simple solution to our low college enrollment rate. But at a time when a college education is more important than ever, we must work together to solve this crisis.