On January 16, 2019

VSAC study of college completion identifies urgent needs

By Scott Giles

Nearly every conversation about the economic future of our state begins and ends with the need for greater workforce development and for Vermonters to get the education and training required for the available jobs today and the ones coming down the line. Economists project that by 2020, nearly seven out of 10 jobs will require education or training beyond high school.

Vermont Student Assistance Corp.  (VSAC) is taking a data-driven, long view on how we’re doing as a state, starting with the class of 2012 in order to learn more about the factors that influence Vermont students’ higher educational choices and outcomes. In early December, we released our third report on the group, which looked at college retention and graduation rates and what factors contribute to these outcomes.  This most recent report focused on students pursuing four-year degrees. Future reports will look at students pursuing two-year degrees and certificates.  Each of these pathways –along with apprenticeships and job training – plays a critical role in our economic future.

The results revealed some good news, as well as significant opportunities for improvement.

Much like their peers in New England, Vermont students pursue four-year degrees at significantly higher rates than the national average.  Of these students, 60 percent obtained their degree “on time,” or within four years – a rate that is 13 points higher than the national average.

Unfortunately, this also means that far too many students are either delaying their graduation or dropping out altogether.  National data indicates that obtaining a college degree is associated with higher levels of homeownership, better health, and lower unemployment.

Students who take longer to graduate accumulate significantly more student debt (some estimate as much as 40 percent), and those who never finish accrue debt without receiving the economic and personal benefit of a college degree.  According to the Lumina Foundation, there are 55,000 Vermonters with some college but no degree.  And when you hear about students struggling with or defaulting on student loans, most of the stories involve students who started but did not finish their degrees.

Gender, geography (urban or rural), socioeconomic and generational status all heavily influenced on-time degree status. Women were more likely to obtain their degrees than men, students whose parents have a postsecondary degree were more likely to obtain their degrees than those whose parents did not. In addition, there were stark geographic differences – 33 percent of first generation students from Caledonia County obtained their degrees within four years compared with 62 percent of comparable students from Washington County.

There was encouraging news.  High school preparation – as measured by completion of upper-level math, advanced placement courses and high school GPA – was a more important influence than any of those demographic factors.  The completion rates of the most demographically disadvantaged group in this study – males whose parents did not go to college – increased almost 30 percentage points when those students had completed algebra II and had earned an overall GPA of ‘A.’

These findings underscore the importance of preparation and counseling at the high school level. Indeed, the results of a recent VSAC study indicated that when one-on-one counseling is offered to middle- and high-school students, their college admission and graduation outcomes substantially improve. In other words, the data prove what we believe is true: that when the right social, academic and counseling supports are in place, socioeconomic status does not have to determine destiny.

We also observed significant differences in the make-up and academic preparation of the students who attended Vermont institutions as well as differences in on-time completion rates.  The four-year graduation rates ranged from 79 percent at St. Michael’s College to 68 percent  at UVM, 63 percent at Champlain College, 54 percent at Vermont Technical College, 48 percent at Castleton University and 31 percent at Northern Vermont University. Ensuring that students have access to the financial, social and academic supports they need to be successful must be a central focus of our efforts to increase education opportunity for all Vermonters.

Last month VSAC and the Vermont State Colleges co-hosted a statewide symposium to examine the implications of this data and discuss strategies for expanding educational opportunity and improving graduation and retention rates.  Scott Thomas, University of Vermont dean of education and social services, opened the conversation by eloquently reminding us that addressing these challenges is not just a matter of economic urgency, but also an imperative of social justice.   We must do better for all Vermonters, but particularly for those who face the greatest challenges.

This research and the ensuing work to support higher graduation rates that will come from it are critical to achieving Vermont’s economic and workforce goals. It will take all of us –community leaders, educators, mentors, parents and students. It will take more funding for financial aid and for student support programs and services.  But in the end, to paraphrase Dean Thomas, we will do this not just because we must, but because it is right.

Scott Giles is the president and CEO at VSAC, Vermont’s only statewide organization dedicated to helping Vermonters save, plan and pay for college.

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