Tuesday August 3, 2010

Karen Gross

President Obama issued an unequivocal directive: America needs to improve its college graduation rates by 2020 so that our nation has the most educated and competitive work force in the world.

A recent report issued by the Center on Education and the Workforce (cew.georgetown.edu/JOBS2018/) reinforced the need for the Obama 2020 imperative: The workforce of the future demands more and more workers who have attained a minimum of a bachelor's degree. In Vermont, between today and 2018, there will be 100,000 job vacancies (generated by new positions), and of these openings, 62,000 will require post-secondary credentials. Compared to the rest of the nation, Vermont ranks ninth in terms of jobs that will require a bachelor's degree.

For Vermonters, the task of achieving the 2020 goals is formidable. Here's why:

One key issue is the documented weaknesses in Vermont high schools. Looking at 11th graders, one in three Vermont students are not proficient in reading; seven in 10 lack math proficiency(www.understandingvt.org/storage/Post2Ed_final_LoRes.pdf).

Indeed, Vermont received the worst score for aligning high school with college readiness, according to Achieve Inc. (www.achieve.org/files/KeySurveyResultsforEachState.pdf).

Here are five possible initiatives, among the many that could be developed, to move us forward as a state toward achieving improved college graduation rates:

(1) The newly formed but unfunded Vermont Council on the pre-K-16 pipeline needs to develop and incentivize concrete strategies that insure that Vermont's students are prepared for college. These include the possibility of colleges adopting local middle and high schools. Another approach is better coordination between high school and college/university faculty;

(2) More middle and high school students in Vermont need to learn about career opportunities available to them as adults, and the fact that these opportunities can only be realized in today's workplace with a college degree. This should happen through experiential opportunities to visit workplaces, meet with professionals in the identified fields and develop mentorship relationships with individuals who can guide and support student progression. Our businesses need to join in this effort, partnering with high schools and colleges to provide more internships, apprenticeships and part-time employment (which can be a form of probationary work);

(3) Colleges/universities need to enhance their efforts to recruit and accept more vulnerable students into their institutions (i.e., first generation students, low-income students). Then, they must put in place strategies that improve student capacity to succeed, including pre-arrival preparation, bridge programming, peer-to-peer tutoring and first year courses that foster connections between students, faculty and their community;

(4) The Vermont Legislature, with gubernatorial support, and the private sector (including most significantly, employers) must identify ways to increase meaningful financial aid to Vermont families, whether through grants, loans, tax credits or loan forgiveness for identified employment within Vermont. The goal is for college-aged students -- who enroll in-state and graduate -- to focus on their studies while in school and emerge with manageable debt that can be serviced through meaningful employment opportunities in Vermont; and

(5) There must be collaborations among the state's institutions of higher learning so they can leverage resources and develop shared strategies for growing the population of college graduates. These collaborations, some of which are already underway, can lead to more dollars and attention being directed to enabling student success.

We have already launched some programs at Southern Vermont College that address these issues in concrete ways. Here are several examples. We have partnered with Mount Anthony Union High School, and their faculty joined ours on campus for a training session on writing. SVC and Wheelock College in Boston are partnering with organizations and charter schools to help vulnerable students experience college while still in high school.

Programs like this could be enhanced and replicated with financialsupport (www.nebhe.org/2010/06/04/college-tries-"mini-mesters"-and-more-to-improve-readiness/). In terms of retention of students in college, SVC has introduced a new pilot anatomy and physiology course designed to improve course pass rates through new pedagogies (blogs.svc.edu/president/tackling-the-anatomy-physiology-challenge/).

But, this is only the beginning, and our work must continue and expand. If Vermont fails in this effort, it will not meet the workforce needs of the coming decade. That failure will hurt our state's economy and its capacity to thrive, and a generation of Vermont young people will suffer over the coming decades. These individuals will not be work force eligible or will be unemployed, which hurts them and their families. That's a result we cannot afford -- on any level. The challenge is here. It's time for action.

Karen Gross is president of Southern Vermont College.