Effort under way to increase numbers of college-bound Vermonters via ‘flexible pathways’

Sen. Dick McCormack
Sen. Dick McCormack. VTD/Alan Panebaker
In his inaugural address in January, Gov. Peter Shumlin called on the Legislature to “help move more poor kids beyond high school.”

A bill in the Senate, intended to create “flexible pathways” to graduation, takes a stab at Shumlin’s challenge.

The proposal lays out a three-part plan to expand “dual enrollment” and early college programs and to create “personalized learning plans” for each student, starting in kindergarten.

Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden, a member of the Senate Education Committee, hailed the legislation as “one of the most exciting education bills to come out in the last 10 years.”

The bill was passed out of the Education Committee and sent to the Appropriations Committee on Feb. 26. Sen. Richard McCormack, who chairs the education panel, said he expects it to reach the Senate floor this week.

Vermont has one of the highest high school graduate rates in the nation but the number of graduates who go on to postsecondary education pales by comparison. About 90 percent of students graduate from high school, but only 60 percent go on to postsecondary education within 16 months.

Baruth said Vermont students must be prepared to become part of the 21st century workforce. “If we want to produce a very qualified workforce, we need to be educating students at a higher level more quickly,” he said.

The bill outlines a straightforward plan for expanding avenues to higher education. The funding scheme, however, is complicated.

Currently, the state picks up the tab for 11th-graders and 12th-graders to take one college course at the University of Vermont, one of the Vermont State Colleges, or seven private colleges. Under the new proposal, students could take two courses, fully funded. Courses can be offered either at the college or on-site at the high school.

The second part of the bill calls on UVM, the Vermont State Colleges, and private colleges to develop early college programs, which allow 12th-graders to complete their final year of high school and first year of college at the same time. Right now, the state has one such program — the Vermont Academy of Science and Technology (VAST), housed at the Vermont Technical College (VTC).

The bill also mandates that every student maintain a “personalized learning plan,” starting in kindergarten and lasting through 12th grade. The legislation doesn’t carve out any funding for these plans; it does set the foundation for an evolving fee structure for dual enrollment, and it designates funds for the early college program.

The state will cover the full cost of the dual enrollment program for the first two years using money from the Next Generation Fund, which was created to promote workforce development. The state would up its spending from $400,000 to $800,000, in line with Shumlin’s pledge to double state funding for the program.

But starting in Fiscal Year 2016, the state would split the bill 50-50 with the sending school district. The cost of a course is pegged at the Community College of Vermont’s (CCV) rate. UVM and the Vermont State Colleges, which charge much higher rates for their courses, would in effect subsidize the program for Vermont high school students.

“It’s a huge compromise,” according to Daniel Smith, communications and public policy director for the Vermont State Colleges, but “we are happy to be a part of it.”

The early college program also depends on the willingness of postsecondary institutions to bear part of the financial burden. Under the bill’s provisions, the state will draw on the Education Fund to pay these institutions per student, either 87 percent of the base education amount or the college’s tuition rate—whichever is less.

“Financially, it’s probably a loss for them [postsecondary schools], but it’s a good thing to do,” McCormack said.

But Baruth, who is also an English professor at UVM, said the colleges also stand to gain from the arrangement: “Part of the idea is that the institutes of higher education are going to wind up getting very highly qualified Vermont students.”

So far the bill enjoys strong support among many of the key stakeholders: the Vermont State Colleges, UVM, Community College of Vermont (CCV), the Vermont NEA, the Vermont School Boards Association (VSBA), the Vermont Principals’ Association (VPA) and the Vermont Superintendents Association (VSA), which have all lined up behind it.

In part, that may because the upfront costs are manageable, McCormack said. But, he added, they could become less so if the legislation succeeds in significantly increasing the number of high school students taking part in these programs.

“To be perfectly frank, there may be more of a controversy in the future about funding. Right now the reason everyone is willing and happy, in part, is because this is not all that much money. But the plan is that this will grow… and if it grows we are going to be looking for more money,” McCormack said.

The bill does a good job of keeping costs low, said Ken Page, executive director of the VPA, but it may still be a hard sell given fiscal constraints.

“It’s on its way to being affordable, but there will be some sticky points in terms of the money, in particular now that the sequester is going through.”

But Baruth said he doesn’t anticipate a dramatic upsurge in participation numbers. “It’s very small potatoes in terms of the number of students who participate. There is not going to be a huge rush to these programs because they require students be very capable and mature in terms of the course loads they can handle.”

The early college program at VTC serves 40 students. In his inaugural address, Shumlin described the statistic as a “paltry number.” During the 2011-2012 school year, the state gave out 584 course vouchers for students participating in dual enrollment programs.

Correction: The cost of courses taken at UVM, the Vermont State Colleges, or private colleges as part of the the dual enrollment program is pegged at the Community College of Vermont (CCV) rate, not at 90 percent of this rate, as originally reported. The cost of a course taken at CCV as part of this program is pegged at 90 percent of its normal rate. Story was updated at 8:52am.

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Alicia Freese

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  • Walter Carpenter

    Good idea. I wish it also could be extended to adults who want to go back but are kept back by the sheer costs of it.

  • Lee Stirling

    I think this is a fabulous idea…as long as it’s open to every student enrolled in a VT high school, not just a target demographic. I’m totally willing to pay higher school taxes so my kids will have the chance to complete a year of college and their senior year in high school at the same time.

  • sandra bettis

    other states fund their colleges – vt doesn’t – could that have anything to do with our kids either going out of state to college or not going to college at all?