Gov. Jim Douglas: Portability is about equality

This week’s writer is Gov. Jim Douglas, governor of Vermont from 2001 to 2011 and a Middlebury resident.
The demographic challenges facing Vermont have been a long time in the making. As governor, I was sounding the alarm over 15 years ago: Vermont must do what it can to attract and keep young people in our state.
My administration saw it in terms of a state economy driven by well-paying jobs, an excellent educational system for Vermont families and — most importantly — a shared understanding that Vermont actually needs to be affordable for people to live and work here and to raise their families.
In fact, leaders across the political spectrum have worked tirelessly to break down the barriers that limit hope and opportunity for low- and middle-income Vermonters.
The Vermont State Grant program was born out of a historic bipartisan vision of the 1965 Vermont Legislature that all Vermont students, regardless of background or means, would have access to education that best fits their dreams and aspirations.
Since the program was created, $542 million in grants have been awarded to more than 487,000 students to use at the schools of their choice, public or private, in-state or out-of-state, through a policy called “portability.”
Unfortunately, there’s an effort in Montpelier to change this important feature in a way that would adversely impact low- and middle-income students and their families. Some politicians want to tell them that the only way they could get a Vermont State Grant from now on is if they agree to continue their post-high school education in Vermont. They’d no longer have the freedom to use those grants to attend the college or program of their choosing, wherever that may be.
Despite this commitment of five decades ago, some lawmakers now say that it doesn’t make sense to spend grant money on low-income Vermont students who want and need to study out of state. This is troubling to me because it further widens the opportunity gap for kids who desperately need our support to get an education and gain meaningful employment.
This isn’t about supporting our state higher education institutions, which is also very important. We have outstanding colleges and universities that attract 25,000 out-of-state students every year. This is about limiting opportunity for students who want to experience educational opportunities that may not be offered here in state.
This issue has arisen many times through the years and, each time, lawmakers have understood the value of offering Vermont students a complete range of options. We shouldn’t place restrictions on grants for students who have already overcome so much to get to a place where higher education is now a possibility.
It’s particularly concerning that low-income students in southern Vermont and border communities are the ones mostly likely to use and need the Vermont State Grant to study at schools closer to home. Ending portability would mean an end to giving Vermonters, regardless of where they live or what their families earn, equal opportunities.
The average grant for Vermont students studying out of state is $1,456, far less than the $2,349 for in-state students.
While the difference of an average $6,000 over four years may not seem like a lot, for many students and their families that will mean having to find another way to fund that — in some cases, adding $6,000 plus interest to their student loans. For other students, sadly, it may mean they don’t go to college at all.
Just as many Vermont families are emerging from the difficulty of the Great Recession, ending portability will mean fewer Vermont students being able to afford to go to college and more debt for our low-income students.
Surely that isn’t what state leaders intended more than 50 years ago when they talked about “access and ability to choose.” It certainly runs counter to our efforts today to provide every opportunity for our kids to train for good-paying, 21st-century jobs.
I hope you’ll join me in urging lawmakers to reject this proposal once and for all.
Gov. Douglas served Vermont for more than 35 years, beginning in the Vermont House of Representatives, including a term as Majority Leader. He was elected Secretary of State in 1980, a post he held for 12 years. He was elected State Treasurer in 1994, where he served for eight years. While Treasurer, Douglas also served on the VSAC board of directors. Douglas was elected Governor in 2002 and re-elected three times. Douglas served as chairman of the National Governors Association. In 2010, President Obama appointed him co-chair of the Council of Governors. Gov. Douglas is now an Executive in Residence at Middlebury College, his alma mater.

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