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Why Do So Few Vermonters Choose College?

A large brick building with a green grass yard in front on it.
P Donovan
Only 53 percent of Vermont high school graduates go right to college, according to Fayneese Miller, dean of the UVM College of Education and Social Services. That's lower than any other state in New England.

Vermont’s high school graduation rate of 88 percent is higher than the national average, yet the percentage of graduates who go on to college is lower.

That paradox was at the center of a day-long discussion at the University of Vermont on Tuesday.

Fayneese Miller, dean of the UVM College of Education and Social Services, which sponsored the event, says only 53 percent of Vermont high school graduates go right from high school to college.  The percentage is higher – 60 percent – for those who enroll in college within 16 months of graduation.  But those figures are below the national average, and lower than any other New England state.

“When we look at that number and we look at those same types of students in other states, they’re going on to a higher degree than ours are,” Miller says.  “There’s got to be something else going on.  What is it?  What’s keeping our young people from going on?”

Miller says based on standardized test scores, Vermont high school students are better prepared for college than students in many other states.

She acknowledges there can be financial reasons for choosing to forego a college education, but she says there are also many other factors.

“I don’t think they realize just how ready they are,” she says, adding, “For some it that fear of going away from home.  Burlington, to some of our students, is far away from home.  I think in Vermont we also have another issue, we have a significant number of our young people who also get into a drug culture.” 

Miller says especially for students whose parents didn’t go to college, the path to a post-secondary education may not be clear.

Educators say new approaches at the high school level, like Common Core Standards and the development of what are known as Smarter Balanced Assessments will help.   

Speakers at the forum suggested that if students are more confident about their success, the financial costs of college may not seem as daunting or risky.  But they also said those costs need to be addressed.

Increasing public and private support for scholarships is one way.  Other approaches involve allowing some students to transition into college when they’re high school seniors – and degree programs that can be completed in fewer years.

Scott Giles, president of the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, says removing the real and perceived barriers for Vermonters who want to go to college goes beyond good education policy.

“This question that we’re facing right now is one of the great social justice questions that our state is ignoring,” Giles told the educators.

Speakers at the event said colleges, too, must become more innovative in how they teach and the support they offer to students, because many students who go on to a post-secondary education drop out before getting a degree.

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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