Opinion: Higher ed must adapt quickly
This week’s writer is Elaine C. Collins, President of Northern Vermont University
The end of August marked the return of many of our students to campus. Beyond the masks, the intense new cleaning regimens and mandatory COVID-19 testing, the return of students has brought back a semblance of normalcy during these strange and unsettling times. Their return has also provided a stark reminder of the value that NVU students and alumni bring to our community, our region and our employers.
The vast majority of our students — 70% — are Vermonters and nearly half are the first in their family to attend college. While at NVU, our students enrich our local community with their skills, their community engagement and their economic output. When they graduate, they more often than not become an integral and critical part of Vermont’s workforce — providing employers with the hard-to-find skills needed for success.
The data are clear and impressive. NVU’s total economic impact in northern Vermont is conservatively estimated at $113 million annually. NVU brings 18,000 people to our region every year. Additionally, the university attracts out-of-state students, many of whom choose to make Vermont their home after they graduate or come back to visit with their tourist dollars.
Times are changing and the pandemic, combined with changing demographics, has created a perfect storm for higher education institutions. In order to continue our vital work for generations to come, we must evolve and meet the emerging and future needs of our students and the region’s employers. As such, to help build a stronger connection between a student’s academic experience and future career goals, we have created the NVU Learning and Working Community. Through this initiative, NVU will collaborate with community partners from various industry and nonprofit sectors to formalize career pathways and hands-on learning opportunities for students. The NVU Learning and Working Community will connect students, faculty and career professionals in work, action, service and learning on campus, at the work site and across the region. Partners in this concept will align and complement NVU’s mission and we hope to have a few co-locate on our campuses to take advantage of our infrastructure. Ultimately, the goal is for students to receive compensation to reduce the cost of getting a degree.
We know that the most successful graduates are shaped by the liberal arts and real-world exposure. This will be a partnership of equals: the two sides — academics and workplace —bringing different strengths to bear, learning from each other, and emerging stronger as a result. Twenty-five local business and nonprofit leaders signed a letter of support indicating their interest in the NVU Learning and Working Community concept. Within this vision, NVU will have thriving and sustainable campuses, students will gain lifelong skills and make valuable future networking connections, and local labor needs will be met.
Here at NVU we are working hard to re-envision how we can best serve our students and our region’s employers. We greatly appreciate that the legislature is also working to better serve higher education. The House’s recent vote in support of bridge funding for the Vermont State Colleges System represents a huge step forward in our state’s commitment to our state colleges. An investment in the VSCS is an investment in Vermont’s students, our employers and our economy. We are grateful that the legislature has recognized that it is an investment with a high rate of return. This funding will help ensure NVU continues to offer the best possible education and learning opportunities to our students and the best possible workforce for our employers.
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