Vermont State Colleges Look To Boost State's College Completion Rate

Jun 19, 2015

This month, thousands of Vermont teenagers are earning their high school degrees. But while the state does an unusually good job of getting its students through high school, fewer than half of them will go on to get a post-secondary degree. The Vermont State College system is working to change that.

For a state with such highly regarded public schools, Vermont’s college-completion rate is, by regional standards at least, surprisingly lackluster. 

“There are thousands of Vermont students that are going to graduate from high school that do not plan to go to college. That’s dangerous for the future of this state. It’s dangerous for the economic prospects of those individual students,” says Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of Vermont State Colleges, a network of five small institutions with a combined enrollment of about 12,000 students. 

Delegates from VSC, along with the chairs of the House and Senate committees on education, flew to Minneapolis last week for a conference on one possible way to boost college completion rates.

Bruce Vandel is vice-president of Complete College America, the national organization that hosted the event, and footed the bill for the Vermonters who traveled there. Organizers focused on ways to revamp the remedial classes that many students must endure before gaining entry to credit-bearing courses.

“And not surprisingly, a very high percentage of students, and particularly students that are underrepresented in our higher education institutions, never find their way out of remedial education,” Vandal says.

For lower-income students required to take remedial courses, college-completion rates nationally can fall below 20 percent. If state colleges allow students to earn college credit while they’re taking that remedial coursework, then Vandal says they’re more likely to earn a degree.

"There are thousands of Vermont students that are going to graduate from high school that do not plan to go to college. That's dangerous for the future of this state." - Jeb Spaulding, Vermont State Colleges chancellor

“So if indeed remediation is supposed to be sort of a bridge to a post-secondary credential, it’s not functioning that way. And frankly it’s more of a barrier,” Vandal says.

Spaulding says it’s a promising approach, and one that VSC is exploring. Meanwhile, Spaulding says VSC institutions have increased the funds available for advising first-year students, and is trying to do a better job generally of keeping tabs on their well-being.

More than half of Vermont State College students are the first in their families to attend college.

“If this student hasn’t bought books or shown up to class, somebody gets in touch with them and tries to help them out,” Spaulding says.

Spaulding says the comparatively high tuition rates at state colleges in Vermont are a more intractable obstacle. This state ranks near the bottom nationally for state support for higher education.

“The amount of state support we get in the state is most likely one of the factors contributing to the fact that we have a lower proportion of Vermont high school students going on to college than many other states do,” Spaulding says.

"If indeed remediation is supposed to be sort of a bridge to a post-secondary credential, it's not functioning that way. And frankly it's more of a barrier." - Bruce Vandel, Complete College America vice president

Spaulding says one way to improve that funding picture might be to recalibrate the formula used to allocate public dollars.

“If what we’re all about is supporting Vermonters to get degrees, maybe there should some relationship between the number of degrees conferred to Vermonters, and amount of funding you get from the state,” Spaulding says.

No matter the funding formula, the fate of VSC is tied to the local students it’s working to recruit. The more Vermonters that attend college, the more tuition flows in to VSC. And the more of them that stay on to get a degree, the better the chance this cash-strapped system has of finding strong financial footing.

“So there’s mutual self-interest here,” Spaulding says.

VSC has applied for a $50,000 grant from the Lumina Foundation to aid its recruitment efforts.