Guest editorial: Vermont is ducking the real debate over jobs

If, as the Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce predicts, 69 percent of all jobs in New England by the year 2020 will require postsecondary education, and if only slightly more than half of Vermont’s graduating high school seniors enroll in college the following fall, then what is the fallout from the obvious gap between the jobs available and the lack of people qualified to fill them?
The answer is several-fold: 1.) We will have an increasing number of workers employed in low-paying, part-time positions. 2.) We will have an increased demand on our social services departments and income-security programs. 3.) We will increase the pressure on employers to move to where the qualified employees are more plentiful. 4.) State revenue will continue to be pinched as the rate of growth slows.
This is true of most New England states, with Vermont being one of the more extreme examples. We have the fewest people, and we are older than all but Maine.
There is no single way to address the issue, but in Vermont we almost pretend as if the issue doesn’t exist. If it is addressed, it’s only with platitudes. We have roughly two months before we elect a new governor and lieutenant governor. What are they saying that gives us any comfort that the challenge is even being acknowledged?
Not much.
We’re in this political environment in which no one dares suggest anything that might cost more. We don’t differentiate between an expense and an investment.
And to be able to compete on the playing field that is about to be ours, we will need to make some investments.
First and foremost is the need to increase state appropriation levels for both the University of Vermont and the Vermont State College system. We rank 49th in our support of their budgets. If this support slips, or even if it is allowed to languish at present appropriations levels, we’ve made any progress on the economic development front increasingly difficult if not impossible.
The irony, of course, is the only thing candidates preach is the need for new and better jobs. It’s always about the economy and making things more affordable.
Really? So what are they willing to do?
Vermont has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the nation. And one of the lowest percentages of graduates doing on to college the following fall. What are we doing to increase that matriculation rate and what are we doing to help those who do enroll to complete their degrees?
Not much. In fact, it’s not a discussion that resonates much beyond a small cohort in Vermont.
What we do hear — on the national level as well as the state level — is how expensive college is and why it’s important that tuition be free or heavily subsidized.
But that is a discussion intended for the political ears. It sounds appealing — who doesn’t like something for free — but it doesn’t address the issue, and, in some respects makes the problem worse.
As most national studies are showing, it’s not the level of student debt that is the issue, it’s the completion rate. Students who graduate with a degree can manage their debt because they earn, on average, about $20,000 more annually than someone who doesn’t have the degree. The students with the real burdens are those who attend college but who don’t graduate.
The help that is needed is the sort of funding targeted toward efforts that get students across the stage to pick up their diplomas. Here’s the math: In Vermont, 62 percent of the students from financially-able families enroll in college, only 36 percent of those students from poor families enroll. Roughly three-quarters of those in the higher income level graduate with a degree, only nine percent of those at the lower income levels get their degrees.
There is your target market.
How can our educational system — preK-16 — spend its money in a way that ensures a higher percentage of our students get the sort of education that qualifies them for tomorrow’s jobs?
That’s the debate.
For us to succeed we first have to acknowledge the need for the investment. It will cost us money to make some money. If that prompts a moment’s pause — that spending money thing — then consider this: for every dollar spent in appropriations to the University of Vermont we get an estimated 25 dollars in return. The numbers are different for the Vermont State College system, but the conclusion is the same; the return on the investment is better than any stock portfolio you could pick.
That should be an easy sell.
— Emerson Lynn, St. Albans Messenger

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