Guest editorial: Free CCV tuition is key to building Vermont’s workforce

We’ve long known that the most promising jobs in Vermont require education and training beyond high school. Yet too often, Vermonters seeking that education and workforce training cannot afford it. Cost is the primary barrier to postsecondary continuation, and Vermont has one of the country’s lowest college-going rates to show for it. Consequently, we also have a workforce in crisis. 

One silver lining of the pandemic is that Vermont has come together to make historic investments in college and workforce training affordability. Last year, with generous support from legislators and the governor, Vermont Student Assistance Corp. (VSAC) announced the 802 Opportunity Grant: (that provides) free tuition at the Community College of Vermont (CCV) for Vermonters with a family income of $50,000 or less. In 2022, legislators increased the household income threshold to $75,000. 

Thousands of Vermonters have taken VSAC up on its offer of free tuition. Among them:

• A social worker pursuing a career in mental health who depends on 802 Opportunity to stay out of debt.

• A funeral director, new to the profession, who had been laid off during the pandemic, for whom 802 Opportunity was “a huge weight off my shoulders.”

• A behavioral therapist for children with autism says that 802 Opportunity allows her to access education while working full-time. 

The power of this program is its inclusivity. 

Vermonters of all ages and backgrounds stand to benefit, including working adults, single parents, recent high school graduates, veterans, new Americans, educators, healthcare workers, and entrepreneurs. Fully half of Vermont households are eligible.

In the 2021-2022 academic year, more than 2,000 Vermonters enrolled using 802 Opportunity—close to 50 percent of CCV’s degree-seeking students. Vermonters from all 14 counties attended all 12 of CCV’s academic centers. Students were 17 to 74 years old, with an average age of 30. Three-quarters or a staggering 1,500 students were the first in their family to go to college. We’re learning a key lesson: when we remove the barrier of cost, Vermonters enroll.

Employers need workers with increasingly sophisticated skills, and CCV provides those skills. According to the latest report from the J. Warren and Lois McClure Foundation and the Vermont Department of Labor, the high-pay, high-demand jobs with at least 500 openings this decade include jobs in health care, education, and business—the bread and butter of CCV programs. More than 250 of the 802 Opportunity recipients have already completed a certificate or degree, and most are in the fields of health care, childcare, and business.

We know that education is the greatest equalizer when it comes to economic opportunity—and as a rising tide lifts all boats, this is true for individuals and for whole communities. When Governor Scott and the legislature prioritized funding for higher education, they made a gift to individual Vermonters and to our collective economic well-being.

When we continue this positive trajectory by prioritizing and making permanent the state’s funding for 802 Opportunity in 2023, Vermont will serve as a powerful example to the nation of a state invested in its future. By expanding access to education and workforce training, we are building the foundation for a more resilient, more equitable, more vibrant Vermont. 

Editor’s note: Scott Giles is the president and CEO of Vermont Student Assistance Corp; Joyce Judy is president of the Community College of Vermont.

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