Editor’s note: This commentary is by Liz Schlegel and Jen Kimmich. Schlegel lives in Waterbury and is the executive director of the Alchemist Foundation, a place-based foundation focused on expanding educational and economic opportunity for Vermont youth. Kimmich, co-founder and CEO of the Alchemist Brewery and board chair of the Alchemist Foundation, lives in Stowe.
Dear grown-ups, we have a proposal for us all. Let’s start talking with our young people about all the amazing things they could do after high school, and give young Vermonters the information they need to build successful lives here. Let’s be honest about work, and college, and learning – and let’s give every young adult in Vermont the freedom to choose the path that’s best for them.
Over the past two years, we’ve been spending time with young folks in the towns from the Mad River Valley up through Lamoille County, talking with local employers, and connecting with school staff. We’ve listened a lot, read a lot of research, had a lot of terrific conversations and seen some great programs. And here’s what we’ve learned: We need to change the conversation, and bring more folks into the discussion – starting with young Vermonters. Because our young adults are facing big challenges, and they need us to believe in them – believe that they are capable of dreaming big solutions, knowing what they need, and ready to make Vermont a better place.
They’re facing intense pressure to go to college right after high school, even though that may not be the best option for all of them or a sure-fire path to success. Young people who don’t want to pursue college are treated as a failure of the school system, rather than people making a rational decision. For many young Vermonters, the significant debt required to attend college may not pay off – especially when there are good-paying jobs available that don’t require two- or four-year degrees.
If they do want to attend college, they’re facing big access challenges. Vermont has some of the highest college costs in the country, with limited financial aid available. As a recent VSAC study showed, out of 100 Vermont high school graduates, only 30 will graduate college in four years. And students who leave the state for a better financial aid package, as many do, are less likely to return to Vermont after college. And if they hear the message that no good jobs are available here, they’re even less likely to return.
They’re facing challenges in accessing Vermont’s work opportunities; there are tons of Vermont employers who are desperate for good hires, but young people don’t know about all the interesting, fulfilling, creative jobs and careers out there, and many employers don’t connect directly with high school students. You can’t aspire to what you don’t see, and our schools need more support to successfully implement the workplace aspects of Act 77, the Flexible Pathways Initiative.
They’re dealing with uncertainty about climate change, the economy, social isolation, and many other challenges that are exponentially increasing anxiety and depression among youth. It’s hard to focus on “learning to fail” and “building resilience” when the adults around you are focused on all the things that are going wrong.
So here’s what we’re proposing: Let’s change the way we look at, think about, and talk to young folks in high school and after. Let’s start with the idea that young Vermonters are important to us, and to our future as a state. If we want them to stay here, we need to see them, care about them, and listen to them. They’re not just our “future workforce” – they are our current neighbors, and future taxpayers, co-workers, elected officials, business owners and farmers. They are future friends, parents and community members. They’re our fellow Vermonters, and their success is our success.
Let’s raise Vermonters who have a good understanding of all of their options, and who know that – as most adults have done – they are going to try a lot of different things before they find the work that fits them best. As the McClure Foundation has shown with their Pathways to Promising Carers project, there are a wide variety of high-demand, good-paying and interesting jobs in Vermont that don’t require a college degree, but it’s hard for a young person – in school or after graduation – to find out what they are or access the training they will need. Let’s make it our business to talk to the young folks around us about all of the cool things we see happening in this state, and give them opportunities to get first-hand experiences.
Let’s support investment in their education – giving them more school-to-work opportunities in high school, more access to career and technical education, and reducing the costs that make college inaccessible or impractical for so many. Let’s be creative and innovative in exploring ways to reduce costs – from credits for employers to pay for education, to free tuition at our state colleges, to reducing student loan debt.
It’s time to change the way we connect with young people in our schools, communities and places of business. We need to give them the opportunity to see what’s possible here and to get excited about how they can be part of it. All adults – not just teachers and parents – have the potential to be navigators and wayfinders for all of the young people in their lives. Our rural communities are an asset here – it’s harder for kids to fall through the cracks when so many adults in their small town know who they are, know their interests, and believe in their potential.
Our young people are the force that is going to power Vermont, now and in the future. It’s time for us to step up and show them the many paths that are here for them in our communities.