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Vermont’s Free Degree Promise Benefits Students, Society

Donovan Arnold

By eliminating cost, young people have clear paths to in-demand jobs

By the time Donovan Arnold was a junior at Richford High School, he had completed most of the available higher-level classes. “He only had a few graduation requirements to complete senior year,” said his school counselor, Allison Witherspoon. “Together, we discussed Early College as a good next step.” Vermont’s Early College program allows high school seniors to enroll full-time in college courses at no cost to them, earning college credit and a high school diploma at the same time.

“At first I thought I wanted to stick with a traditional senior year,” said Arnold, who has always enjoyed math, “but when I looked at the Community College of Vermont (CCV) and their accounting program, it looked great.”

This spring, he will graduate from Richford High School with one year of college and a certificate in bookkeeping under his belt. The experience has been so positive for him that he plans to continue at CCV for a second year through the Free Degree Promise, currently funded by the McClure Foundation for the Vermont high school classes of 2023-2026. “First off, it’s free,” said Arnold. “It really helps with paying for college. At the same time, I enjoy the classes and the environment. I like CCV and want to stick with it so I can further my career.” When he completes his second year next spring, he will have earned his debt-free associate degree in accounting by age 19.

“It feels like a really big win.”

“For a student like Donovan, it’s a game changer,” said Witherspoon. “He initiated this. He wanted the challenge. He is well on his way to creating a future for himself.” 

Arnold has taken classes in financial accounting, microeconomics, payroll accounting, and more, earning straight A’s while working part time at Richford’s Main Street Market. The flexibility of a college schedule allows him to take on shifts that would not have been possible as a traditional high school student and build up his savings account. This semester, he’s also interning through CCV in the accounting department at the Northern Tier Center for Health (NOTCH), the nonprofit that owns Main Street Market. “There are so many accounting jobs you can go into,” said Arnold. “I could help manage a business or help people with taxes. I’d like to learn more before I decide the best fit for me.”

Whether he decides to go on to a four-year bachelor’s degree or go directly to work in his field for a few years, Arnold will almost certainly find himself well-positioned for employment after college. According to Vermont’s Most Promising Jobs report, released by the Vermont Department of Labor and the McClure Foundation, there are projected to be over 7,000 accounting-related jobs in Vermont over the next ten years, with annual salaries well above the state median.

“The thing I’m most excited about is being able to get into what I want to do at a young age,” said Arnold. “With an associate degree, I could get a great accounting job at the age of 19. But even if I go on to a bachelor’s or master’s degree, I’ll still be in my early twenties when I graduate. That feels like a really big win for me.”

And it’s a win for Vermont too. Statewide, the labor force participation rate of men ages 16 to 24 dropped over 10% during the pandemic and is several points lower than women of the same age. At the Community College of Vermont, enrollment is close to 70 percent female.

“When it comes to the experience of men and boys in our educational and social structures over recent decades, there is a notable vacuum,” said Vermont Community Foundation President and CEO, Dan Smith, in a recent opinion piece. “We know that a community in which people feel the absence of opportunity and hope is a breeding ground for disengagement and discord. We also believe that disengagement has shared economic, social, and civic consequences.”

Expanding possibilities for senior year

Approximately 50 percent of students from Richford High School, located in Franklin County, go on to pursue a postsecondary degree. Anecdotally, however, Witherspoon says she’s hearing more and more students talk about Early College and the Free Degree Promise. 

“It’s just an amazing opportunity,” said Witherspoon, who sees both cost and generational support as reasons her students may not pursue postsecondary education. “If a student is ready for the rigor, this program eliminates the cost barrier, which is big. We have a lot of first-generation college students who just don’t know the process. It’s extremely intimidating. Early College starts to chip away at that and helps students build confidence to choose their own path.” 

With spring in the air, Arnold is looking forward to graduating with his peers at Richford High School in June. He has remained connected to his high school, where he’s a member of a competitive dance team and plays trumpet and bass guitar with the band. Some days, he’ll use the senior lounge to do homework and see friends. “It’s a balance,” he said. “But overall, it’s been a great experience and has expanded what was possible for senior year.”

About the J. Warren & Lois McClure Foundation

The McClure Foundation is a supporting organization of the Vermont Community Foundation that works to close opportunity gaps in the state by strengthening college and career training pathways to Vermont’s most promising jobs.