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Vermont free tuition program sees ‘astounding’ demand

Published: 7/27/2021 10:01:56 PM
Modified: 7/27/2021 10:01:57 PM

Megan Cram is working full-time at the Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin and enrolling at Vermont Technical College this fall in the hopes of getting her license as a registered nurse. But when she learned recently that she was pregnant — her due date is days before finals — Cram reconsidered.

“Financially, I didn’t know how I would pay for it,” she said.

A scholarship covering the full cost of tuition for a year — which, funded by federal COVID-19-relief aid, is only temporarily available for now — steeled her resolve and made her decide to stick to the plan.

“I don’t want to raise my child the way that I was raised: with very little and having to sacrifice basic necessities for myself to give my child everything that they wanted and needed,” she said.

For decades, Vermont has been a national outlier, spending fewer state dollars on higher education than nearly any other state in the country. Without state investments, students have been asked to pick up the tab, and the result has been one of the most expensive public tuition prices in America.

But the pandemic brought an unprecedented influx of philanthropic and public support to Vermont’s state colleges, with foundations and the state plowing funds into a litany of new workforce training initiatives. The most ambitious of these has been a $5 million free-tuition program, covering the cost of attendance for one year for certificates and degrees in critical shortage areas, most in health care.

The interest has been “astounding,” Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Sophie Zdatny told lawmakers and the governor in a letter earlier this month. Within weeks, the colleges paused the program and established a waitlist, having maxed out available funding.

“While we provided our best estimates to the legislature this spring, student interest has far exceeded our expectations,” Zdatny wrote, adding that the colleges needed an extra $2.4 million to fund all eligible students on its waitlists.

Adam Greshin, the state’s commissioner of finance, wrote back on Thursday, urging college officials to fund scholarships for those on the waiting list. Additional financial help from the state would not be forthcoming — yet — he said.

“This does not rise to the level of an ‘unforeseen emergency’ as required by statutory guidelines governing the Emergency Board,” Greshin wrote, referring to the special legislative panel empowered to green-light appropriations when lawmakers are not in session. But additional funding might very well come, he said, during the mid-legislative session budget assessment, a mechanism by which the lawmakers make changes to the current budget.

Katherine Levasseur, a spokesperson for the chancellor’s office, said that the colleges would likely notify students on the waitlist within the coming days that they could fund them for the year. As for whether the colleges would press state officials to fund the free-tuition program for these occupations on an ongoing basis, Levasseur said that’s to be determined.

“I think we are looking at this as a pilot program and a conversation starter. It’s too early to say whether we would be requesting a permanent program, but we are certainly gathering a lot of data about this,” she said.

Vermont has long dealt with a paradoxical trend. Its high school graduation rates have historically been strong, but the rate at which Vermonters go on to college has lagged regionally and nationally. The state colleges’ experience with its free-tuition program and a recent initiative by the McClure Foundation provides powerful evidence that cost has been a key factor all along.

Last summer, the foundation announced that it would pay for every Vermonter graduating from high school in 2020 to attend one Community College of Vermont class for free. Nearly every other state saw community college enrollment crater during the pandemic, according to a new report by the College Board. But in Vermont, it soared.

“It’s becoming more and more clear that Vermonters enroll when they perceive that college and career training will be guaranteed affordable and easy to access,” said Carolyn Weir, the executive director of the foundation.

Weir said the simple messaging around the initiative was important to its success. The program was free and universally accessible.

But while she’s hopeful the McClure gift and the state college’s experience with the free-tuition program help guide how lawmakers and the governor make decisions about how to invest in higher education, Weir also cautioned against an approach that narrowly focused on direct aid to students.

If the state wants to meet its postsecondary goals, Weir said, it will also have to more robustly fund the actual schools that deliver the programming. That would allow colleges to invest in instruction and support — and to lower their published tuition prices, which can be a powerful deterrent to prospective students exploring their options.

“I’m not sure we see scholarships alone as a systemic, long-term approach for affordability, unless they’re paired with significant direct investments in the places where students who are least likely to continue are most likely to go,” she said.

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