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Historic Enrollment Follows “Free Degree” Promise in Vermont

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Pictured: Blake, Williamstown High School class of 2022 and CCV class of 2023.

His high school education interrupted by the pandemic, Blake, class of 2022, spent much of his sophomore and junior years in online classes. While he didn’t mind the format, which allowed him to work at his family’s laundromat business, he felt ready for something more—especially as his senior year approached. When one of his teachers suggested that he consider Early College, a state program that allows Vermont students to enroll in a free year of college in lieu of their traditional senior year, he was intrigued. “I was ready to push myself, to take my learning to the next level,” he said about his decision to enroll in Early College at the Community College of Vermont (CCV) for his senior year.

On track to earn an associate degree in business from CCV this spring, Blake will be among the first students to earn a two-year degree through the recently announced McClure Free Degree Promise, a program from the J. Warren & Lois McClure Foundation. The Free Degree Promise provides all Vermont high school students in graduating classes 2022-2026 who complete Early College at CCV with the opportunity to earn an associate degree for free.

Early College allowed Blake to earn his high school diploma from Williamstown High School, where he remained on the baseball and basketball teams, and get a first year of college under his belt at the same time. His decision to stay at CCV for another year through the McClure Promise to earn his free associate degree was an easy choice according to Blake, who adds that he and his parents haven’t had to worry about financing his college education. Blake plans to become a certified electrician and follow in his father’s footsteps of owning his own business.

Affordability Linked to Increased Enrollment

Record levels of low-income and BIPOC students among those pursuing Early College as a result of the McClure Foundation’s Free Degree Promise.

College affordability is a deterrent to many students in Vermont and around the country. The McClure Foundation believes that community college, widely regarded as an engine of economic mobility, is part of the solution. Here in Vermont, CCV serves the greatest number of Vermonters of any college in the state. 95 percent of Vermonters live within 25 miles of a CCV location, yet Vermont has the lowest college continuation rate in New England—and the highest percentage of young adults living in poverty.

Investments made in higher education during the pandemic made clear that when college and career training are affordable, Vermonters will enroll. The early impacts of the McClure Foundation’s Free Degree Promise affirm that trend.

“We saw a surge in enrollment following the announcement of our free degree promise, especially among low-income and BIPOC students,” said Carolyn Weir, executive director of the McClure Foundation. “CCV is now supporting the highest level of enrollment in Early College in the program’s nine-year history.”

198 students, representing 100 percent of Vermont’s counties and 90 percent of Vermont’s high schools, are currently enrolled in Early College for the 2022-23 school year. 42 percent of them are identified as low-income by their school counselor, representing a 30 percent increase in the number of students enrolled from low-income families compared to last year.

Faith will graduate this spring with a degree in marketing—the first in her family to earn a college degree. “It is a gift that has changed my adult life,” she said. Adopted and raised by her grandparents, Faith has always prioritized her education and dreamed of going to college, but she worried that her family would not be able to afford it. Like Blake, she enrolled in Early College her senior year, earning her high school diploma from Essex High School while completing her first year at CCV, and decided to remain for a second year to earn her associate degree. Upon graduation this spring, Faith plans to look for a job in marketing so she can gain work experience before deciding whether to continue her education.

Faith and Blake represent a cohort of students currently enrolled at CCV that is 39 percent first-generation students and 16 percent BIPOC students. Both numbers exceed state averages for the overall K-12 population.

“Our vision is a Vermont where college and career training contribute to greater equity and resilience,” said Weir. “It’s early, but the numbers indicate that the Free Degree Promise is helping move Vermont in the right direction.”

She attributes the program’s success to date to three factors. First, a commitment to universal access, which reduces the stigma associated with students accessing supports. The Free Degree Promise is open to all students, who can choose any degree they wish at CCV. Secondly, a commitment to support beyond tuition. The McClure Foundation, in partnership with the Vermont Community Foundation, provides living stipends and enhanced advising to students, further reducing financial burden and helping to ensure success. Lastly, the program leverages state funding for college and career training by dovetailing with existing programs such as Early College and the 802 Opportunity Grant.

“Young Vermonters and their families deserve an affordable pathway to the education beyond high school that is available to every high school student,” said Tim Donovan, McClure Foundation board member.  “Equally important, they need to be able to count on that pathway early enough in high school to be prepared to succeed.  The ‘Free Degree Promise’ serves both these purposes. Vermonters deserve no less.”

Good for Vermonters, Good for Vermont

Released in October 2022, the Vermont’s Most Promising Jobs report indicates that the most promising job opportunities in Vermont over the next decade largely require training or education beyond high school, such as a certificate program, associate degree, on-the-job training, or a bachelor’s degree.

Compiled by the McClure Foundation in partnership with the Vermont Department of Labor (VDOL), the report identifies occupations such as teachers, bookkeepers, carpenters, and nurses as among the “most promising” based on projected openings and salaries.

Weir believes the McClure Free Degree program will help prepare Vermonters to fill these and other jobs, noting that 65 percent of Early College students at CCV indicate they intend to continue their studies at CCV next year. That’s more than double the typical percent of Early College completers who continue at CCV.

“We hope that means more young people being supported to stay in Vermont because they’re hopeful about their futures here and more young people with a credential that will help them land a promising job,” said Weir.

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