Young Vermonters are gearing up for their next big stride toward earning a college degree. This fall the first official Early College Program high school students will begin their senior year at Vermont colleges thanks to the passage of the Flexible Pathways Act. Passed in June of 2013, Act 77 touches on concepts that are not necessarily new—Vermont’s Dual Enrollment Program was established in 2007 and Vermont Technical College’s Vermont Academy of Science and Technology (VAST) graduated its first class in 1990—but advancing early college and concurrent enrollment by enacting legislation is.
The push follows Shumlin’s State-of-the-State address in January of last year which focused entirely on higher education for Vermonters. His call to action was aimed at the disparity between how many Vermonters finish high school and how few attend college—Vermont has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country and one of the lowest college-going rates.
“Education is the pathway to economic prosperity in this state,” said Vermont State Colleges’ Chancellor Tim Donovan. “Too few students go on to a post-secondary experience. We are committed to building the strong partnerships with high schools that will allow these early college programs to play a crucial role in addressing that challenge.”
National research has shown the benefits of such partnerships, such as in Florida where a healthy early college program exists. In that state, and in others where dual enrollment opportunities exist, more students graduate high school, go on to college, and then in stay college. And that’s exactly the outcome Gov. Shumlin wants.
“Ensuring more Vermont students have exposure to higher education is critical to supporting students and their families in reaching their dreams,” said Gov. Shumlin.
According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2018 at least 62% of all jobs in Vermont will require some postsecondary education. A more educated Vermont workforce could mean higher wages, better overall health, and less dependency on state support systems.
Proponents of Vermont’s Dual Enrollment say exposure to the rigor of college courses while still in high school prepares students for success in college, builds confidence and ultimately increases the affordability of a degree—there’s the potential for knocking off at least a full year’s tuition at no cost to the student and getting that degree in less time.
“In an ideal world, a sophomore in high school would come take Introduction to College Studies,” says Katie Mobley, Community College of Vermont’s director of community relations, of the course CCV has offered for about ten years with funding from GEAR-UP.
That way, she says, as a junior they could use the two Vermont Dual Enrollment Vouchers allocated to them by the state, which are good at 17 Vermont colleges and universities, and then take advantage of Act 77’s Early College Program by completing their entire senior year of high school at a participating college. Those schools participating in the Early College Program are Community College of Vermont, which can take an unlimited number of students due to its size and unique presence throughout the state, Johnson State College, Castleton State College, Lyndon State College, Vermont Technical College and Burlington College, each of which can accommodate 18 students per year.
In the Early College Program, students commit to being enrolled full-time at the college–15 credits per semester, none of which, as with the Dual Enrollment Vouchers, can be remedial coursework offered by the college—but can still participate in sports and social programs at their high schools.
“It’s such an exciting opportunity for students, particularly to get an entire first year of college paid for,” says Mobley. “And I think CCV does a really good job of working with our first year students; so those best practices that we have, really small classes, intensive advising and learning labs support, those are all pieces that we will integrate with the Early College Program. I think it’s a great chance for those students to really stretch outside of their high school and have strong support while they do so.”
With only the cost of books for a bill, freshman year potentially complete, and the confidence now accompanying them into their college transition, the prospect of getting a higher education becomes much less overwhelming and that much more attainable.
“Taking CCV classes has definitely helped me grow as a student,” says Ora Sparks, a senior at Champlain Valley Union High School. “I am more comfortable learning with a diverse group of students; I have been able to work with students that are not the same age as me and have different life and work experiences. I am also able to use critical thinking in a discussion based class.”
Starting as a sophomore with Introduction to College Studies means more college experience and learning skills that will invariably benefit high school courses earlier. However, the logistics of getting a sophomore, who most likely does not have a driver’s license, to an ICS course can be a challenge. One of the solutions is offering the college-level class on-site at the high school.
“That’s great in terms of addressing the younger student access piece,” says Mobley who is currently teaching an ICS course at South Burlington high school. “Even though it’s still a high school environment we intentionally craft a course that feels like it’s a college class.”
The same goes for the Vermont Concurrent Enrollment classes being held at high schools, another push in the Flexible Pathways bill. The first of those offered ran in the fall of 2013, more were available this spring at ten high schools.
“It needs to feel different, it needs to have a different level of rigor and be a different experience for students,” says Natalie Searle, director of secondary education initiatives at CCV. “We’re still learning, figuring out how to do that. A lot of states are in a place already where a college won’t accept concurrent enrollment credit, we want to make sure that doesn’t happen in Vermont.”
The appeal of Vermont’s Concurrent Enrollment reaches many levels. High school teachers go through an approval process to teach college courses at the high school, so the college course is doubling as a high school class. The students can use their Dual Enrollment Vouchers to take it, easily accessing a course already built into their day, and receive credit toward both their high school diploma and college degree. Teachers, students, and schools all benefit.
“I think this is going to be a big conversation in Vermont,” says Mobley. “If I were to predict an area of growth for dual enrollment it would be concurrent enrollment. Especially for small schools that don’t have enough students to get an Advanced Placement class going or it’s too expensive for them to run. And for students who may not get credit for an AP class if they don’t get a certain score on the test. This is a really great way to increase what smaller high schools are able to offer without losing teachers.”
The limitations of small, rural Vermont schools was the driving force behind what’s currently happening with a group of Fair Haven Union High School students taking CCV’s ICS at Castleton State College. With unique funding from the Vermont Community Foundation, transportation arrangements, scholarships and meal vouchers were made available to students to address the school’s low college-going rates and increase opportunities to get on the path to earning a degree.
The success of that program led CCV to apply for funding to support Vermont’s Dual Enrollment Program in a similar way and the new grant from Nellie Mae will provide it to students at Twinfield, Windsor, Vergennes, Poultney, Winooski, Springfield, Oxbow, Richford, and Canaan high schools.
“It’s the goal of the legislature to increase the number of students who go to college in Vermont,” says Searle. “To increase it you have to make it accessible to the students who otherwise wouldn’t go. Providing opportunities like the ICS class for Fairhaven students or Nellie Mae’s support for Dual Enrollment is a step toward that. You provide that to a student and the hope is that they say ‘wow, you know I was thinking I could never do this, but here’s my window of opportunity.’ That’s the way CCV is approaching the program.”
According to Dhyana Bradley, a college counselor at Burlington High School, Vermont’s Dual Enrollment programs are accomplishing just that. Bradley says 93% of BHS’s College Connections students can be described in one or more of the following ways: first generation college-going, low income, English Language Learner, has an identified disability, is a minority, or is an out-of-school youth.
“Many of the students I help are the first in their families to attend college,” she says. “It is so exciting for me to see these students grow from scared to confident and self sufficient learners.”
Recent data shows that 1,345 students used Dual Enrollment Vouchers this year—up from 789 last year and 621 the year before. Of those CCV served 840. Adding Concurrent Enrollment and Early College to the established Vermont Dual Enrollment, VTC’s VAST program and the Fast Forward program—a tech-oriented early college program available at VTC and CCV—will provide for Vermont high school students a robust set of free opportunities to get a solid start on their post-secondary education.
“The amount of students served, the fact that it got put into law, that it was recognized statewide as serving a population of students, really feels like a victory,” says Mobley. “And it’s an exciting one to be a part of.”