Tackling workforce development — and bucking enrollment trends

By Scott Giles and Joyce Judy

In the Green Mountain State, we are proud to have one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country. On the flip side, Vermont also has one of the lowest college-going rates.

At the same time, employers across industries need workers with increasingly sophisticated skills; nearly all of Vermont’s most promising jobs and well-paying jobs require education and training beyond high school. Yet too many Vermonters — of all ages — choose not to continue their education because they cannot afford to.

Taken together, these issues boil down to one essential threat to our economic well-being: we are struggling to meet workforce demands. The challenge is not unique to Vermont, but one solution might be.

In recent years, Vermont has come together to make historic investments in college and workforce training affordability. In 2021, the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC) announced the 802 Opportunity Grant: free tuition at the Community College of Vermont (CCV), the state’s sole community college, for Vermonters with a family income of $50,000 or less. In 2022, the income threshold was raised to $75,000. Over half of Vermont households are eligible.

In the 2021-2022 academic year, more than 2,000 Vermonters enrolled using 802 Opportunity — close to 50% of CCV’s degree-seeking students. This includes Vermonters from across industries: a social worker pursuing a career in mental health who depends on 802 Opportunity to stay out of debt; a funeral director, new to the profession, who had been laid off during the pandemic, for whom 802 Opportunity was “a huge weight off my shoulders”; and a behavioral therapist for children with autism who says that 802 Opportunity allows her to access education while working full-time.

Vermonters from every county in the state enrolled and students attended all 12 of CCV’s academic centers. Students were 17 to 74 years old, with an average age of 30. Three-quarters, or nearly 1,500 students, were the first in their families to go to college. More than 250 of the 802 Opportunity recipients have already completed a certificate or degree, and most are in the fields of healthcare, childcare and business, industries where Vermont sees the highest workforce needs.

An added benefit of the 802 Opportunity program is its impact on enrollment. As enrollments fall at colleges across the country, including at community colleges, the number of students at CCV is climbing. Between fall 2020 and fall 2022, enrollment has grown 10%. We’re learning a key lesson: when we remove the barrier of cost, Vermonters enroll.

Increasing access to postsecondary education and training has profound implications for Americans and is essential to a growing, healthy economy. Here in Vermont, we’re empowering students, strengthening our workforce, and building a more resilient economy through innovative programs such as 802 Opportunity. The Vermont experience is proof that with federal support, this model could be replicated across the country to change the trajectory of countless lives.

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.