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Affordable higher education

If there was ever any doubt that unaffordability prevented Vermonters from pursuing higher education, the news last week should have laid it to rest.

Reports that there was more demand than supply for a state program offering free tuition to Vermont colleges were probably not surprising to many in the higher education field. While Vermont’s high school graduation rates consistently have been among the highest in the country, college attendance rates have been low. And attempts over the years to understand and solve this conundrum haven’t provided much new clarity.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it seems that cost is a barrier for many. Some Vermont colleges are reporting waitlists for the Critical Occupations Free Tuition Program, which provides a year of free tuition for students in fields including software and web development, and health services, as well as others. Schools are now asking the state for more funding to cover interested students.

It has been a strange year in education—college students taking classes while stuck in their dorm rooms, kids as young as kindergartners learning how to use Zoom, parents supervising schoolwork more than ever before, and teachers trying to figure out how to do what was essentially a brand-new job. 

The pandemic has sent the job market on a rollercoaster ride as well. Like everywhere else, Vermont experienced a huge spike in unemployment and job losses last spring. And while the worst of it might be over, the state still isn’t back to where it was pre-COVID. With parents still juggling unvaccinated kids and child care struggles, and COVID infections rising again, it’s tough to know what the next year will bring.

All of this disruption, and the federal and state investments that resulted from it, have opened up opportunities for many. One of those opportunities is the chance to access higher education.

The cost of higher education has grown  faster than wages for decades, and student loan debt has been increasing in Vermont and everywhere else. But Vermonters with college degrees tend to have higher wages and are less likely to be unemployed. It’s clear Vermonters still want those degrees, they just don’t want the cost to outweigh the benefits.

So policymakers should take the hint and find the money to fund everyone on those waitlists. Public services shouldn’t be on a first-come, first-served basis with tough luck to anyone still in line when the money runs out. Just like with pre-K-12 public education, Vermont should make higher education available to all—and not just during a pandemic, but all the time. The need is clear.

Posted by Stephanie Yu on August 6, 2021 at 10:22 am

One Response to “Affordable higher education”

  1. Becky Bartlett says:

    Several times in my life (40 years in the workforce)I have considered pursuing some specialized education to supplement my BA and many years’ experience. At different times I considered library science and healthcare administration. As the primary earner (and insured partner)I was always discouraged by the difficulty of affording and managing school while supporting a household and raising a child. Current programs still neglect the adult workforce. We need ways to improve our skills and income, and avoid obsolescence in a market that overvalues youth. Restricting higher education to the young is a big mistake.