Vermont tries to hold on to college grads

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series looking at what the shrinking percentage of younger people in Vermont means to the future of the Green Mountain State. Click here to read the first story, “Numbers tell the story of an aging Vermont.” MIDDLEBURY — Jamie McKenna did not realize how much he would miss Vermont when he graduated from Middlebury College in 2008 and moved away. A native of Lake Placid, N.Y., McKenna spent two years abroad before deciding it was time to return to the Green Mountain State.
“When looking at options for working back in the states, figuring out a way to start back in Middlebury was high on my list of goals,” he said.
After working at Middlebury College for a few years, McKenna started his own design firm called Imhotep. Today, he lives with his wife and son in Cornwall and does not plan on leaving anytime soon.
However, McKenna’s story may be the exception, rather than the rule. Many students who attend college in Vermont — natives and out-of-staters — move away after they graduate. Some go in search of jobs, others pursue further schooling and a fair number seek the excitement of city life. As the economic impact of Vermont’s aging population looms large, some policy makers and educators are trying to encourage graduates from the state’s many public and private colleges to settle here and enter the workforce.
An important goal is to grow — or at least maintain — the number of working people who will provide muscle and brains for the Vermont economy as well as support those coming to the end of their working lives.
One problem with keeping college grads in state is that the majority of college-bound Vermont high school students do not stay in the state for higher education to begin with. In 2016, just under half of college-bound Vermonters chose to stay for college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Jeb Spaulding, the chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System, noted that the lack of funding for public colleges drives up tuition costs for in-state students, which may be one of the factors pushing young Vermonters to schools out of state.
The Vermont State Colleges System — which includes Castleton University, Community College of Vermont, Northern Vermont University in Johnson and Lyndon, and Vermont Tech — currently serves over 11,000 students, 82 percent of whom are native Vermonters. Spaulding believes that making public higher education more financially accessible would encourage Vermont high schoolers to stick around for college as well as after they graduate.
A bill recently proposed in the Vermont Senate would help to do just that. If passed, S.38 would make 10 semesters of public college free to state residents pursuing a bachelor’s degree. Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-East Middlebury, one of the co-sponsors on the bill, thinks that investing in public higher education would improve economic outcomes for the state.
“We have one of the lowest investments in higher education in the country,” Hardy said. “I’m hoping that if we reduce the cost of attending college, and reduce the debt load of attending college, more students will choose not only to stay in Vermont but go to college in the first place.”
Evidence suggests that those who attend public colleges tend to stick around. Spaulding said that nearly 80 percent of students at the state’s public colleges stay in Vermont after graduation. The colleges do their part to encourage students to stay in state by arranging internships for students at Vermont companies.
“All of our colleges have robust internship programs. We know that having students connected to local businesses and nonprofits will help keep students in state,” he said. “If students develop those connections somewhere else then they often end up working there.”
Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) has a similar philosophy, and has spent the past 10 years connecting college students to local companies through the Vermont Intern Program. Funded in part by the Vermont Department of Labor’s Workforce Education and Training Fund, the program helps companies create new internship positions for students in the hopes that they will enter the state’s workforce.
According to Samantha Sheehan, the communications manager at VBSR, the Vermont Intern Program has placed 259 current students and recent graduates in internship positions with Vermont employers since 2014. This includes both Vermont natives who stayed in state for college, and out-of-state students who chose to attend colleges in Vermont.
“The program has grown as a resource for current students and recent graduates to find internships with companies and organizations in the state,” she said. “For some companies and interns, it has created opportunities for interns to transition to full-time positions.”
Addison County natives who stayed in Vermont for college often said access to jobs was a deciding factor in where they will move after graduation. Hailey Cray, who grew up in Ferrisburgh and is now a senior at the University of Vermont, said she will probably look for jobs elsewhere.
“Remaining in Vermont is unlikely to be permanent for me because I will be seeking a job in the medical field and would like to be at a large medical center,” she said. “I would absolutely be open to moving back to Vermont one day, provided there were good jobs for me and my spouse. Vermont was a great place to grow up.”
UVM senior and Weybridge-native Sharon Palmer studies Food Systems and said she does want to stay in Vermont after she graduates, but will likely pursue grad school options out of state.
“The main factors in my decisions right now are where my family is located and the location of jobs I’m qualified for and interested in,” she said about her plans for the future.
Betsy Bishop, the president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, believes that creating more internships and jobs for recent college graduates is one of the best ways to create economic growth in the state. As part of their effort to increase workforce participation, the Chamber of Commerce helped start Vermont Futures Project. Among their other work, the Vermont Futures Project conducted research about how to create more and better jobs for college graduates and other young adults.
“Young people want to work at a place that is meaningful and where the workplace culture matches their culture,” Bishop said, which is why one of her goals is to turn Vermont businesses of all sizes into “employers of choice” with good work environments.
The Vermont Futures Project is working to attract all graduates from colleges in Vermont, not just those who grew up here.
“Our hope is they love the four years they spent in Vermont and we get them an internship in Vermont and then they get their first job in their Vermont,” Bishop said. “Where you get your first job is where you start to put down roots.”
Bishop believes it is important for colleges and universities in the state to encourage graduates to stay here for work. Peggy Burns, the director of the Center for Careers and Internships at Middlebury College, agrees.
“We would like to facilitate a path for Middlebury graduates to stay in Vermont for post-grad employment or start-up creation, which in turn will contribute to a more robust Vermont economy, contribute to a more just society, contribute to a more vibrant culture, and gain more statewide exposure for the college and the contributions of its graduates,” she said.
In this vein, the career center facilitates internship opportunities in Vermont for students. Of the 320 interns the career center funded last summer, 53 worked in Vermont. They also help set up around 40 Winter Term internships for credit with employers in the state.
However, although Burns said 10 to 15 percent of Middlebury students identified Vermont as a geographic preference on the college’s job and internship search online platform, only about 30 members of the class of 2017 remained in state. Burns said that at least one barrier to graduates staying in Vermont is the lack of afford housing.
Some of the graduates who stayed in Vermont, including Robin Vincent, were hired to work at the college in positions that last a year or two.
Vincent grew up in Sutton in the Northeast Kingdom and graduated from Middlebury College in 2018. She works at the Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs on campus and her position ends this June, at which point she expects her next steps to take her out of state.
“I can envision eventually settling in Vermont. The more I travel, the more I appreciate the idyllic and sometimes ragged beauty of my home state,” she said. “However, I feel the need to experience living in a few places that have a completely different landscape, both geographically and socially, in comparison to the area that I grew up in.”
Meanwhile Jessie Klinck, who graduated from Middlebury last February, moved to San Francisco for a new job before realizing she wanted to return to Vermont. Klinck lives in Burlington now and plans to stay through the spring. She would like to stay longer, and is searching for full-time employment. She does not think Middlebury students understand the wealth of employment options available to them in Vermont.
“There is so much more opportunity here than I realized when I was at Middlebury,” she said. “In my experience, there seemed to be a rush to leave Vermont after Middlebury. I never spent much time exploring the opportunities that Burlington and Vermont offered for recent grads as it seemed like the possibilities were limited.”
Olivia Tubio was prepared to be part of that rush when she graduated from Middlebury last May. Many of her friends were moving to Boston, and she wanted a new experience. But then she was offered a dream job at McKenna’s architecture firm and decided to stay.
“I absolutely love my job, and have made it a priority that I’ve shaped the rest of my life around,” she said. “My role will grow as the company grows, so my focus is on that, and I have no plans to leave Vermont.”
Read the final installment in the series, “Housing market tight for young and old.”

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