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Politically Thinking by Eric Davis: Vermont needs more young adults

The U.S. Census recently released 2012 population estimates for Vermont and its 14 counties. Vermont’s statewide population grew by only 270 people between the April 1, 2010, census and the July 2012 estimate. However, the statewide number conceals important regional differences. The four counties in northwestern Vermont — Chittenden, Franklin, Grand Isle, and Lamoille — grew by 2,922 people, while the remaining 10 counties lost a total of 2,652 people.
The population is increasing in Burlington and its surrounding communities because that is where most of Vermont’s job growth — especially jobs that require a fairly high level of professional or technical skills — is taking place. In much of the rest of Vermont, job and population growth are nearly stagnant, and the regional economies are increasingly dependent on educational and health care institutions. Addison County, where Middlebury College and Porter Medical Center are the two largest employers, is a good example of trends in Vermont outside the Burlington area. So is the Connecticut Valley, where Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center are the largest employers in the region.
Vermont’s population is aging, at an increasing rate. The estimate for Vermont’s median age in 2012 was 42.3, up from 41.5 at the time of the 2010 census. Vermont is the second-oldest state in the country. Only Maine, with an estimated median age of 43.5, had an older population than Vermont. If current trends continue, the median age of Vermonters could be close to 50 at the time of the 2020 census.
Census and other data indicate that the main reason for Vermont’s aging population is the departure of young people from Vermont, for reasons having to do with both the structure of the state’s higher education system and economic considerations. The University of Vermont has a smaller percentage of in-state students than any flagship state university in the nation. Although the Vermont State Colleges offer a relatively inexpensive education to state residents, they face challenges in convincing Vermont high school graduates to remain in Vermont, rather than attend institutions in more urban out-of-state locations that may also offer a wider range of degree programs.
Young Vermonters who attend college out-of-state are likely to remain in those out-of-state communities after they graduate. Boston’s population grew by 3.1 percent from 2010 to 2012, one of the fastest rates of increase in the Northeast. One of the reasons for Massachusetts’ economic success in recent years is that Bay State colleges and universities import young people from the rest of New England, who then often remain in the Boston area, to work and for further study, after they graduate from college.
Vermont also has a low rate of post-graduation retention for students who attend college within the state. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston have found that Vermont ranks last in the nation in terms of college graduates remaining in the state one year after receiving a bachelor’s degree. Only 20 percent of graduates of Vermont colleges were still living in Vermont one year after graduation. This number has been declining steadily over time. In 1993, 37 percent of the state’s college graduates remained in Vermont one year after graduation.
Some Vermonters may prefer a slow-growth or no-growth state. However, I believe that Vermont’s current population trends — an aging population, with ambitious and well-educated young people leaving — do not bode well for the state’s long-term policy and economic future. Increasing the share of 25-to-45-year-olds in Vermont’s population outside of the Burlington area is one of the biggest challenges that the state faces.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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