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Barbara Benedict: What the pandemic taught us about college affordability

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This commentary is by Barbara Benedict, president of the J. Warren & Lois McClure Foundation.

“I would have moved away from Vermont again if this opportunity did not present itself. I’m hoping this will help me find a job that pays a decent wage so I don’t have to move away from my home again.”

So said one Vermonter who benefited from easy and affordable access to college and career training at the Community College of Vermont amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Enrollment there has surged thanks to a wave of publicly and philanthropically funded free courses and scholarships for folks impacted by the pandemic.

That enrollment surge has put Vermont on the map, according to a June 2021 report from the College Board.

At the McClure Foundation, we celebrate these investments in college affordability and all they’ve done to inspire Vermonters about career pathways.

Some initiatives were of our own design, including our promise to the high school class of 2020 of one free course of their choosing at the Community College of Vermont. This initiative resulted in recent high school grad enrollment doubling at a time when new student enrollment at community colleges nationally plummeted.

Another philanthropic investment was the Vermont Community Foundation’s $350,000 in grant funding for the career training programs we consider “best bets” for landing a good job quickly, part of our ongoing campaign with the Vermont Department of Labor about Vermont’s most promising jobs.

Many other initiatives sprouted from the Legislature, some of which took cues from the early success of philanthropic initiatives.

All these investments in college affordability have yielded positive impacts, nowhere more visible than at CCV — about 60 percent of the students benefiting from public scholarships and free tuition opportunities enrolled there this fall. Those students come from diverse backgrounds: They’re working, they’re parenting, they’re changing careers, they’re gaining new skills.

And they are succeeding.

Students benefiting from the free courses and scholarships completed about 80 percent of all courses taken and were 20 percent more likely to continue in their studies than the general student population.

Another student said, “I didn’t make enough money to pursue higher education/training, and I couldn’t make more money because I didn’t have higher education/training. This has granted me a break from that cycle.”

When we think about all we’ve learned from the success of these investments, we point to three key lessons:

  • Cost matters. When college and career training is guaranteed to be affordable, people in Vermont will enroll.
  • Make it simple and hopeful. By structuring supports as easy to understand and to access, and by centering those supports at a state’s community college, where low-income and nontraditional students are already attending at scale and continuing onto other Vermont institutions, students felt valued.
  • Vermont can build on the success of these investments. In a high-tuition state like Vermont, where prices deter so many, sustaining a new public perception of the affordability of college and career training will take more than scholarships. It will require institutional investments that lower tuition for everyone.

It would take CCV $6 million per year in sustained funding to slash tuition by 25 percent — or $12 million per year to reduce it by 50 percent.

The price tags may sound steep. In some ways, it’s simply the cost of playing catch-up. It’s what it will take to bring Vermont’s community college tuition closer to the national median after four decades of extreme underfunding.

In other ways, it’s an affordable price for purchasing a future with transformative value for Vermont residents and employers — while improving the purchasing power of other available federal, state, and private aid and scholarships.

What we do with this information next is essential to the health of Vermont’s economy, the success of Vermont students, and the vitality of our brave little state.

It’s time to get serious about public policy priorities for higher education. Our recently released white paper on this topic, with data analysis from Public Assets Institute, overviews the conditions that have led to our current policy and funding framework for higher education and offers several possible paths forward. Read more at

This next legislative session is a momentous opportunity to set the strategy for the public’s investment in higher education in a way that brings the costs of that education and training into balance with the systemic role it will play in the recovery and what comes after.

Vermonters deserve no less and Vermont can’t afford to lose any more time — or talent.