President’s Blog – Higher Education Matters:

Thoughts from Southern Vermont College President Karen Gross

Higher Ed and Workforce Development: Challenges for Vermont and the Nation

Thursday, July 8th, 2010 by Karen Gross

 An Overview

A recent report issued by the Center on Education and the Workforce  makes it abundantly clear that the workforce of the future demands more and more workers who have attained a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree.  This key finding reinforces the importance of President Obama’s equally clear directive that America needs to improve its college graduation rates by 2020 so that our nation has the most educated and competitive workforce in the world.

Marrying workforce development with college/university graduation rates is, in and of itself, an important statement about the direction in which institutions of higher education need to go.  All of our colleges and universities – from the largest to the smallest, from public to private institutions, from two year to four year programs, those with deep roots in the liberal arts tradition to those that are career focused  ­we need to find ways to graduate more students who can meet our workforce needs. 

Not surprisingly, the Report observes that not all states are equal in terms of workforce opportunities and particular educative challenges. For Vermonters, these imperatives take on added urgency.  Here’s why.

Concerns for Vermonters

Between today and 2018, Vermont will generate 100,000 new job vacancies, 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.  Noteworthy, too, is that Vermont ranks 50th in terms of jobs that will be available for those who drop out of high school. 

These data present real challenges in light of the documented weaknesses in Vermont high schools.  Looking at 11th graders, one in three Vermont students are not proficient in reading; seven in ten lack math proficiency.  Although more Vermonters graduate from high school than its New England neighbors (with lower rates of progression to College) and Vermont is one of the states with the highest expenditure per student in the country, these students lack college readiness according to the College Board. Indeed, Vermont received the worst score for aligning high school with college readiness, according to Achieve Inc, an independent, non-profit education reform organization that helps states raise academic standards.  (click to read more on Vermont College Pipeline data).

A Call for Action

These data identify key imperatives for those of us engaged in ‘in-the-trenches’ educational initiatives in Vermont.  If we want to have more students succeed in college and graduate, we must work to find ways to enroll and graduate more Vermont high school students who are prepared for college level work.

Here are five possible initiatives, among the many that could be developed:

(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, an initiative we have started already at Southern Vermont College and Mount Anthony Union High School.  Programs like this could be enhanced and replicated with financial support.

(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 needs to 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.  SVC has launched a pilot summer healthcare academy with these goals in mind.

(3) Colleges and 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 recognize the need for students to connect with each other and their community.  SVC has introduced a new pilot Anatomy & Physiology course to tackle these specific goals.

(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; 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.

Why this Matters

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.  These individuals will not be workforce eligible or will be unemployed, which hurts them and their families.  That’s a result we cannot afford – on any level. 

At Southern Vermont College, we are working on all of these initiatives as part of an ongoing strategy.  We can do more, along with our statewide college and university neighbors.  Soon we will welcome the incoming Class of 2014.  I am excited to share with them our deep commitment to their collegiate success – without which we will neither meet the President’s 2020 goal nor create a powerful and able Vermont workforce for the coming decades.

To comment…

Send Karen Gross an email at dearpresident@svc.edu. Not every email will receive a personal response but themes raised in the emails may be addressed here and certain responses shared with readers.