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'Free Degree Promise' Will Pay for Vermont Students to Attend Community College


Published April 26, 2022 at 5:40 p.m.

High school students at CCV-Montpelier - JADE PREMONT ©️ ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Jade Premont ©️ ©️ Seven Days
  • High school students at CCV-Montpelier
The McClure Foundation announced on Tuesday that it will pay for an associate's degree at the Community College of Vermont for all in-state students currently in grades 8 through 11.

To take advantage of the foundation's newly launched Free Degree Promise, students must attend CCV's Early College Program during their senior year of high school. The foundation would then pay for them to complete any of the community college's 11 associate's degree programs — from health science to information technology to early childhood education. In addition to covering tuition, McClure will provide a stipend between $500 and $1,000 to help with expenses such as books and transportation. 

Vermont's Early College Program allows high school seniors to attend one of six approved colleges — Castleton University, Community College of Vermont, Goddard College, Northern Vermont University, Norwich University or Vermont Technical College — and earn both high school and college credits simultaneously, free of charge. The program enables high schoolers to get a jumpstart on higher ed and save money on college tuition, since they graduate high school with a year's worth of college credits already under their belt.

The Free Degree Promise essentially extends the Early College Program at CCV by another year, enabling Vermont students to rack up a second year of college and earn their associate's degree — at no cost.

Enrollment in the state's Early College Program has grown steadily. In the fall of 2016, 168 Vermont high school seniors participated, according to a report by the Vermont State Colleges System. Four years later, that number rose to 266.

CCV enrolls roughly 150 seniors from 40 to 50 Vermont high schools in its Early College Program each year, according to CCV director of communications Katie Keszey. Half are the first generation in their family to attend college and 32 percent are low-income.
CCV president Joyce Judy said she imagines there will be an uptick in enrollment driven by the Free Degree Promise. The duration of the grant — five years — will also allow the college to test the hypothesis that eliminating cost barriers will lead more Vermonters to pursue post-secondary education.

According to data from Advance Vermont, only about 60 percent of high school graduates in the state enroll in two- or four-year colleges within six months of graduating — a figure below the national average.

"What I'm hoping is that if we do our work right, we can increase that number because that will help those kids change their trajectory... but also ... it's going to be a game changer for Vermont businesses," Judy said. "What we're hearing from employers is we have Vermonters who just don't have the right skills for the jobs that are being created."

CCV — which has 12 locations around the state — also has agreements with a number of colleges, such as the University of Vermont and Champlain College, for guaranteed admission for its graduates, Judy said. That means a student participating in the Free Degree Promise program could complete their first two years of post-secondary ed for free at CCV, then enter a four-year college as a junior.
Though this is the largest initiative McClure has undertaken with CCV, the foundation has a long history of partnering with the community college to make college and career training more accessible, Judy said.

Two years ago, McClure— an affiliate of the Vermont Community Foundation — gifted all 2020 high school graduates in the state one free class at CCV. Six hundred of them — more than 10 percent of the graduating class, and double the number of students that enroll at CCV in a typical year —took advantage of the offer that fall. That high uptake showed the benefits of removing financial obstacles to college, Vermont Community Foundation president Dan Smith said; the Free Degree Promise program has a similar goal.

"So much of higher education right now is a self-defeating morass of complexity over who's paying for what, where the money is coming from, what form you have to fill out when," Smith said. "Those kids who most stand to benefit are least likely to wade into that morass.

"So, the intention behind this," he continued, "is that it be a big, clear and hopeful commitment that every Vermont kid is eligible for this opportunity — to have an economically relevant associate's degree by age 19."

The McClure Foundation will work with school districts and partners such as the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation to help spread the word about the Free Degree Promise, according to the foundation's executive director, Carolyn Weir. There is no cap on the number of students the foundation will support.

"We don't know, quite frankly, how many people over the next five years, will ... take us up on this promise," Weir said, "but from our perspective, a promise is a promise, so we are prepared to cover those costs no matter how many students enroll ... If lots of students enroll, we'll consider that a success, for the students who are enrolled, but also for Vermont."

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