In Vermont, a simple message led to higher enrollments

An innovative program provided Vermont's high school class of 2020 an opportunity to take a course for free from the Community College of Vermont. (Photo: CCV)

Nick Carrera-Skorstad just couldn’t see many options for himself.

He loved learning during high school in rural northwest Vermont, but saw no path to further his education as he graduated in 2020, especially while his low-income family with two vulnerable members struggled to cope with the pandemic. Income from his healthcare job just paid his expenses and contributed a bit to the family.

“I couldn’t see how we could ever pay for college. How would we have enough to pay for college and pay the bills?” he recalled recently.

For Addy Abbott, the circumstances were similar. She was supporting herself even before she graduated from high school in Brattleboro, Vermont. When the pandemic hit, she was laid off.

“I never really thought about pursuing college, and that made it even more unlikely,” she said.

But then support appeared that gave them the financial boost and inspiration to enroll at the Community College of Vermont (CCV). Now, Nick is continuing studies to become a graphic designer, having discovered other financial support and new enthusiasm about his prospects. And Addy is committed to finishing studies in neuroscience.

“It changed my life,” she said.

Simplicity and hope

Both students testified earlier this year before the Vermont State Senate Education Committee about an innovative program that provided them and everyone else in the Vermont high school class of 2020 an opportunity to take a course for free from CCV with surprisingly few strings attached.

“We truly believed that this class deserved it, and we felt this model, especially during the pandemic, would be impactful,” said Carolyn Weir, executive director of the J. Warren & Lois McClure Foundation, which works to improve education and training in the state and to link it to jobs. “It was a time of uncertainty and disruption, especially for these students, and we believed that an enrollment incentive like this could inspire hope and change ideas about access.”

The foundation, working closely with CCV, used a message of “simplicity and hope” to promote the program, which took shape over a little more than a week last year. By September, it had proven successful, boosting CCV enrollment well over what college officials expected in the midst of the pandemic – and even over traditional levels.

“We decided that this initiative would be a success if CCV had a level enrollment of high school graduates in 2020. When we saw that enrollment was double typical enrollment size, we were overjoyed,” Weir said.

Students from across the state took advantage of the opportunity. About half of them were the first in their family to attend college, and many were from rural areas — two groups who program planners had hoped to reach. About 90% of the students finished their chosen course. The students and their families gave the program upbeat reviews, and they suggested that it significantly improved the likelihood the participants would further their education.

The message paid off

Katie Mobley, CCV’s dean of enrollment and community relations, said although the program came together quickly and boosted enrollment significantly higher than expected, CCV could quickly adjust to such an outcome because it generally uses flexible part-time faculty and because the courses were virtual and didn’t require extra space.

She believes it was successful because the McClure Foundation promoted it broadly with a simple message that explained it required little from the students.

“They connected with a group of students that took it on the chin last year,” she said. “These students didn’t have graduation ceremonies or proms or a traditional end to their high school experience. And it was hard for them to get excited about what lay ahead. Then the foundation made it simple for them to take this class.”

The result was that 10% of the state’s high school graduates participated, which Mobley said played a key role in boosting enrollment at two year colleges in Vermont by 34%, well above the next highest state with gains (Oklahoma with a 2.3% increase), according to the College Board. It also reported that 44 states suffered losses, including 23 that saw decreases of more than 10%.

More importantly, she said, demographic groups that the College Board indicated were affected the most by the pandemic participated in the program enthusiastically: low-income and first-generation students. She also noted that more than 40% just the took the one class last fall, suggesting that they were students who might not have otherwise attended.

A bright light

“I can’t tell you how often we heard from students and parents that this was a bright light during some pretty dark days,” Mobley said. “They said it helped them believe they could go to college. It made them feel they had been seen and recognized as having potential.”

The students took courses ranging from fundamental survey courses in English and psychology, to specialized courses in technology or nutrition.

Weir pointed out that along with paying for the class, the foundation and CCV bolstered student engagement with academic and counseling support and promoted “a relational hand-off between high school counselors and the academic and career advisors at CCV who could help students chart their next steps.”

“CCV was the right partner,” she said. “The people there were willing to dream big, run with this idea, scale support quickly and meet students’ needs.”

And a survey of students participating indicated that for many it helped financially, but also clarified career options, allowing them to explore a field and helping them think through a future pathway and recognize that college was accessible and manageable. More than 80% met with a CCV advisor and a similar number said they plan to continue in higher education in the near future.

The ripples

Apart from the affect the program might have on these students, its effectiveness apparently got the attention of the state senators hearing the testimony and other legislators. Weir said the state legislature in May approved a new “Green Mountain Graduation Gift” that also allows for any state high school graduates from 2020 and 2021 to take one free course at any Vermont state college this fall or next spring, funded by a one-time state appropriation to the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation. There also are some indications that word about the success of the program may help boost appropriations for public higher education in Vermont, including a number of new state-funded scholarship programs. 

Beyond that, two charitable foundations in New Hampshire have announced a similar effort. They are putting $1 million toward free courses at any of the state’s seven community colleges for 2021 high school graduates.

The New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and The Foundation for New Hampshire Community Colleges are working together to provide any of the students with the opportunity to take one three-credit course and receive extra support from the college.

Weir also said she believes the success of the program perhaps will help focus attention on strategic ways to support students in finding and pursuing career pathways and boost the flow of funding from private and public sources to effective education and training options – which students will choose given the opportunity.

“The participation in this program shows that when the cost barriers are removed, students enroll,” she said.

About the Author

Jim Paterson
writes about education and energy. He lives in Lewes, Delaware.