Educating Vermonters beyond high school

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As I watched my niece cross the stage at Harwood Union High School to receive her diploma recently, I felt the joy and pride of so many family and community members and teachers who filled the tent. And I vividly recalled my own daughter's graduation from both high school and college not long ago. This is a time of great hope, as we send our children off into the world to begin the next stage of their lives.

But I also know the reality that four out of 10 of Vermont's high school graduates will not continue their formal education. Despite the promise of greater economic opportunity that comes with a post-secondary degree, many students simply can't afford to take on the massive debt of higher education.

Vermonters who end their education in high school begin their adult lives at a distinct disadvantage. That's what a group of young people in who I met with in White River Junction told me. They described how their friends who didn't continue past high school had limited options for work, couldn't make ends meet, and many turned to drugs because they had lost hope for the future.

I will not give up on nearly half of young Vermonters. We need to change this story.

Vermont currently ranks in the top five states in the country for its high school graduation rates, and near the bottom nationally — and dead last in New England — for college continuance. Yet studies show that two-thirds of jobs in Vermont will require some post-secondary education by 2020.

The lack of post-secondary education and training is a major driver of Vermont's opportunity gap — the persistent gap between those with economic opportunity, and those without.

Vermont Promise is a win-win-win. Vermont students will be trained for livable wage jobs. Businesses will have access to the skilled workers they desperately need to grow. And the cost — and debt — for Vermont students who attend four-year college could be cut in half.

To close this opportunity gap, I propose to prove two years tuition-free for eligible high school graduates to attend Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College.

I call this plan "Vermont Promise." My plan is modeled on the widely hailed Tennessee Promise, a program with proven results that is now being replicated in Oregon, Minnesota, Kentucky, and in President Obama's national tuition-free community college plan, America's College Promise.

My goal is that by 2025, three-fourths of Vermonters — or more — will be enrolling in a postsecondary education or certification program. Vermont Promise participants must have completed high school within the last year, have a 2.5 GPA or higher, submit a financial aid application, and work with a volunteer mentor. Mentors help students navigate the admissions and financial aid process, and will be a champion for students to fullfill their dreams.

Vermont Promise will cost $6 million in its first year and $12 million in subsequent years. It will be funded by a bank franchise fee on the largest banks and by expanding Vermont's corporate income tax to include the biggest banks doing business in our state. Banks operating in New Hampshire and New York currently pay corporate income tax, but banks in Vermont do not.

In my plan, banks pay their fair share and students get a fair shake.

Our economy depends on — and rewards — a workforce that is educated and trained for jobs of the future. Compared to students who don't attend college, holders of a two-year associate's degrees earn an average of $12,000 more per year, and holders of bachelor's degrees earn $32,000 more per year. Post-secondary degree holders are also healthier, raise children who perform better in school, have higher employment rates, and are less likely to require public assistance.

My mom's parents did not attend college, and neither did she. That is common: In Vermont, only half of first generation students pursue a college education, while nearly three-fourths of students who were not first generation pursue higher education. Higher education is a proven way to break multi-generational cycles of poverty.

Vermont Promise is a win-win-win. Vermont students will be trained for livable wage jobs. Businesses will have access to the skilled workers they desperately need to grow. And the cost — and debt — for Vermont students who attend four-year college could be cut in half.

Vermont Promise ensures that a bright future doesn't depend on who your parents are or where you were born. My plan will ensure that programs tied to careers in our state are accessible and affordable so that more of our bright young students can live and work right here in Vermont.

Let's throw open the barn doors of opportunity to all young Vermonters. That's the Vermont Promise I want to keep.

Sue Minter, of Waterbury Center, is a Democratic candidate for governor of Vermont. She is a former state representative and was secretary of the Vermont Department of Transportation.


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