New VSAC report documents state higher education trends

ADDISON COUNTY — Vermont high school seniors with at least one college-educated parent are more likely to attend college than classmates who would be first-generation college students, a new report by the Vermont Student Assistant Corp. found.
A biannual survey by VSAC of a majority of the state’s high school seniors — including those in Addison County — revealed an “aspiration gap” between those who would be first- and second-generation college students.
“There’s a significant social justice question here, because if you don’t aspire to postsecondary education, you’re not going to go,” said Scott Giles, president and CEO of VSAC.
Founded in 1965, VSAC has provided counseling to middle and high school students across the state. The nonprofit also provides loans, grants and scholarships to Vermont students.
In Addison County, 83.3 percent of high school seniors whose parents are college-educated reported they aspired to go to college, compared to 69.7 of seniors who would be first-generation college students. Of those aspiring students across the county, 61.5 percent actually attend college — 53.9 percent are first-generation, while 73.4 are not.
Statewide, the aspiration gap widens when gender is taken into consideration. More than 76 percent of boys and girls with college educated parents, as well as first-generation girls, aspire to go to college. Just 55.3 percent of first-generation boys aspire to attend college.
“The increases are coming from improvements in first-generation girls; what this has masked is first-generation boys,” Giles said. “This is one of the areas we’re most concerned with.”
In explaining that large gap, Giles said that traditionally, girls saw few opportunities to earn a decent wage that didn’t require a college education, such as teaching and working in health care. Boys, on the other hand, saw construction and other trades as a means to earn a middle-class income. But Giles cautioned that in this post-recession economy, those jobs are disappearing.
“The economy isn’t producing those jobs in large numbers anymore,” Giles said. “Even a mechanic today requires pretty significant computer knowledge and expertise.”
Giles said students with parents who didn’t go to college often have a difficult time navigating complex applications and financial aid forms.
“If you don’t have a parent that’s been through it, you miss all those steps along the way,” Giles said.
A key component in explaining this gap, according to Giles, is measuring when students and their parents first begin to talk about college. According to the senior survey, students with college-educated parents are more likely to have discussed college plans by ninth grade than first-generation students — the most striking disparity between girls with college educated parents (62 percent) and first-generation boys (39 percent).
The report posits that the longer the college conversation is delayed, the less likely students are to actually attend college. If students don’t plan ahead, they are left behind.
“Delaying discussions … until later in high school has a negative impact on course selection during the early years of high school and can prevent ‘late deciders’ from meeting course requirements,” the report states.
For example, the report finds that first-generation students, who are more likely to delay the college conversation, are less likely to have taken advanced algebra, a class seen as a gateway to college-level courses.
If students decide they want to attend college after selecting lower-level courses in high school, it may be too late.
“If you decide your junior year that you think you want to go to college, and you haven’t taken any of the required courses that you need to successfully do it, you’re now behind the curve,” Giles said.
Delaying talking about college, coupled with the aspiration gap, also translates to student grade point average. Statistics compiled in the report find that first-generation students, particularly boys, perform more poorly in the classroom than their classmates with college-educated parents.
As is the case in other measurements, the gap is widest between girls with college-educated parents, 54 percent of whom have an “A” average and just 7 percent have a “C” or lower; and first-generation boys, just 16 percent of whom have an “A” average, and 33 percent scored a “C” or lower.
The report places an emphasis on encouraging students to enroll in the classes that will best prepare them for college, noting “students who completed Algebra II and had a GPA of B or better were much more likely to plan to continue their studies after graduating from high school.”
Giles said a key part of the solution to this problem is more individualized counseling for students.
“On one level, we know one of the keys to this is middle school and early high school counseling and support,” Giles said. “It’s really about having somebody to help identify what your interests are and understanding what education you’re going to need.”
The VSAC report cites scholarship by the Pew Research Center that found that college graduates, on average, earn more money than their less-educated counterparts. Last year, college educated Americans ages 25-32 made $45,500 per year, compared to just $28,000 for those without a degree.
That gap is significantly wider than it was in 1965, when, adjusted for inflation, bachelor’s degree holders earned $39,000, while those with just a high school diploma earned $31,000.
“Everybody needs some training or degree after high school,” Giles said. “A high school diploma is necessary but not sufficient to being able to get a job that will allow you to earn a middle-class income.”
Education also has a significant impact on the wealth of a society. The VSAC report mentions a study by the Federal Reserve that found a state’s per capita income is directly tied to the education levels of its citizens. With more college degree holders, per capita income is higher, which translates to higher tax revenues.
Giles said VSAC is particularly concerned with the flatlining college aspirations for first-generation boys.
“It has workforce implications for the state and it has enrollment implications for all of the Vermont colleges,” Giles said.
In evaluating this data, the VSAC report concludes that the state needs to place more of an emphasis on higher education.
“Our critical state education priorities should not be limited to improving the test scores and academic performance of elementary and secondary students,” the report states. “It reinforces the need for a fundamental shift in education policy and systems to provide all students with the knowledge, skills and concrete plans they need to prepare for and succeed in life after high school.”
Furthermore, VSAC argues that Vermont will be behind other states in educating its young people.
“Vermont’s national reputation as a state that is committed to high-quality education is at risk unless we establish statewide policies that made postsecondary education and training a reality for all Vermonters,” the report states.
To increase the number of Vermont high school graduates attending college, the report proposes a series of reforms. They include encouraging parents to begin the college conversation sooner, develop a curriculum to meet the individual needs of students, expand the availability of dual enrollment and early college programs (which enable high schoolers to take some college courses) and equip each graduating senior with the tools to begin a career or go to college.
The report stresses that statewide standards will not do enough to prepare each student for post-secondary education.
“A one-size-fits-all approach will not be effective,” the report states. “Different regions and even different schools within a region must develop tailored strategies to address their particular challenges.”
According to county-specific statistics, VSAC provided grants totaling $1.2 million to 802 students in Addison County last year, which is an average of about $1,500 per student. VSAC also provided 82 loans totaling $901,000 (on average $11,000 each), and 114 scholarships totaling $257,738 (on average $2,260 apiece).

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