By Emerson Lynn
Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, has introduced a bill to create a Community College Scholarship Program that would provide tuition-free scholarships for Vermont residents attending CCV. It would, from the outset, require a $6 million appropriation.
That’s a small amount of money that would yield profound benefits at a variety of levels, and it would be an investment whose returns would likely dwarf the upfront costs. It also checks a lot of boxes when it comes to the demographic challenges outlined in the governor’s State-of-the-State speech earlier this month.
The first thing to understand is that Vermont’s continuation rate from high school to college is 48th out of the nation’s 50 states. Not only is that a miserable statistic, it’s indefensible considering that nearly 100 percent of tomorrow’s jobs will require education beyond high school.
Part of the reason for that low continuation rate is the cost of tuition. Vermont’s tuition rates are among the nation’s highest because, as a state, we don’t appropriate the same level of support other states provide. The only option is for our higher-ed community to raise tuition and that’s happened often enough to put the cost of college beyond the financial reach of many Vermont students.
Hardy’s bill would make CCV tuition free, and the scholarship would apply to students and adults, full-time and part-time, the primary requirement being that it would apply to applicants with household incomes below $100,000; an income level that would include a fair percentage of CCV’s students.
While Hardy’s bill may play into the rhetoric surrounding the promises being tossed around by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on a national scale, her bill can be defended from a return on investment argument, whereas theirs cannot.
The scholarships apply only to CCV, no one else. It has an income cap. The value is spread throughout Vermont, not just Chittenden County. It could serve as a retraining program for adult learners looking for “new economy” careers. It could be the catalyst the state needs to get more high school graduates into college. And, by getting more high school students into college, or certificate programs at any level, the chances improve dramatically that these students, upon graduation, would elect to stay here and not move elsewhere.
A case can also be made that by strengthening CCV through increased enrollment the rest of the state college system and the universities would also benefit.
The challenge faced by the state college system — including Castleton University, Northern Vermont University [Lyndon and Johnson],Vermont Technical College and the University of Vermont— is one of declining enrollment. If through the free-tuition program CCV is able to boost its enrollment, the increased population is something that could feed the other schools’ enrollment needs.
The school that could benefit the most would be UVM. CCV graduates are already the university’s most successful student cohort. If CCV is able to boost its enrollment numbers through Hardy’s free tuition, then it stands to reason that more students would apply to UVM for their remaining two years.
That’s crucial for two reasons: First, it supports our existing higher ed institutions, which like all other universities in New England are finding the competition for students more intense than ever before. Second, as UVM figures show, a student graduating from UVM is more likely to remain in Vermont upon graduation than a student who left the state for school elsewhere. The same is likely true for all in-state colleges.
As the governor noted in his State-of-the-State speech, the number one challenge we face in Vermont is the need to have our population numbers increase and the easiest way for that to happen is to make sure we do all that’s reasonable to keep students from leaving in the first place.
In sum, what Hardy’s “free tuition” to CCV could do is:
Get more of our students into the lineup for postsecondary education.
Establish a place for adult learners to pick up the education necessary for new careers.
Strengthen other state colleges, Castleton University and the University of Vermont through additional enrollment numbers.
Add economic vitality to regions in Vermont other than Chittenden County.
Reduce the level of student loan debt.
It’s an aggressive proposal and it’s a sharp break from anything that’s been considered as a means of improving the outlook for Vermont’s higher-ed needs and for the economic prosperity statewide. But in the scheme of things, it’s a small price to pay for the value it could generate.
Emerson Lynn is editor emeritus of the Saint Albans Messenger.