University of Vermont

Conversation on College Enrollment and Success

As invited participants from across the educational spectrum in Vermont gathered for the beginning of the Conversation on College Enrollment and Success, sponsored by UVM’s College of Education and Social Services (CESS), Vermont State Colleges (VSC), and Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC), held November 19th in the Maple Ballroom at the Davis Center, none could miss the image on the large screen looming high over the podium.  There gracing the center of the screen were the faces of three smiling Vermont college students, each wearing a graduation cap, staring out as if in greeting to each entering the room. 

Those who merely glanced up at the screen could be excused a little if they thought the image commonplace.  After all, what could be more fitting than a picture of students at the triumphant moment in their college careers?  We made it through, they seem to be collectively saying, and our future lay ahead of us, a message heartwarming for sure to the educators in the room, whose professional lives are dedicated to the outcome offered by the graduating students in the picture. 

But for those who took the time to look closely, they too could be excused a little if the direct stares of the three students seemed a little too intent, as if lurking behind their smiling eyes was a question waiting to be asked, and a problem in search of a solution.

That problem and a search for its solution was what those gathered for the Conversation that morning in the Maple Ballroom would be seeking.  The purpose of the event, written in bold just below the students smiling faces, was to “Identify Next Steps for Increasing College Enrollment & Success for Vermont Students.” This “next steps” quest was in direct response to a recognizable and growing problem that Vermont students are graduating from high school at a high rate, but not enrolling in and graduating from institutions of higher education at the same rate.  The question of ‘why’ and ‘what to do about it’ were the focal points for the Conversation that day.

In her welcoming remarks to the group, CESS Dean Fayneese Miller, who organized the event, spoke of its importance.  “We hope that this will be the first of many conversations we will have about the College enrollment and success rate of Vermont students graduating from Vermont high schools.”  Recognizing the keynote speakers and heads of the three institutions that co-sponsored this conference, UVM President Tom Sullivan, VSC Chancellor Tim Donovan, and VSAC President & CEO, Scott Giles, Dean Miller said, “These three groups came together to organize this event because we agreed that this is an important topic on which we needed to collaborate.  We realized that we could not address this problem alone but had to work together to find solutions to what is a critical concern for all of us."

As moderator for the event, Dean Miller said she felt the need to bring to the attention of all the various education stakeholders in Vermont the breadth and depth of the college enrollment and success problem.  The urgency to do so, she said, grew after observing data showing a glaring discrepancy between the high number of high school graduates in Vermont, one of the highest in the nation, and the low number of those who enrolled in college, and the even fewer who graduated.  

The first speaker, UVM President, Tom Sullivan, after thanking Dean Miller for organizing and hosting the event, provided perspective for the problem.  “We in Vermont in higher education,” he said, “know that we have many challenges, and lots of opportunities.”  Noting that Vermont has 26 institutions of higher education, and nearly 50 thousand students enrolled in its institutions, he said, “We also have some challenges that we all share together which is how do we get students into our front door, and more importantly, how do we insure that they are successful and go on to thrive both in their personal lives as well as in their communities.”  He remarked that Vermont has the third lowest birth rate in the US, which produces in any one-year about 7000 high school graduates, a statistic, he pointed out, which is “substantially down from the past,“ and a decline consistent among highschoolers not only throughout New England, but also across the eastern seaboard.

“We also know,” he continued, “that our Vermont students aspire to go to college on a percentage basis lower than the national average.  We also know that there is a link between aspiring to go on to post-secondary education, and whether or not parents went to college.  And that relationship is important, for data from VSAC suggests there is about a 20% gap between aspiration to go to college in Vermont and whether or not a parent had a college degree.  Moreover, while around 60 percent of our high school students of that roughly 7000 a year go on to college within 16 months of graduation, we also know from more traditional benchmarks that of those enrolling in college directly from high school the percentage is closer to 45-48 percent, which is one of the lowest in the US. 

President Sullivan stressed that Vermont should be proud of its number one ranking in the country in the percentage of its kids graduating on time from high school.  Yet, he said, what is troubling for many of us is that despite this remarkable record of secondary school success, whether it’s the 60 percent who go on to some from of post-secondary education within 16 months of high school, or the 40 plus percent directly from high school, half of all those students go to college outside the state of Vermont.  So in addition to the enrollment and successful graduation problem, President Sullivan added a third, which, in his words, is “Vermont has a pipeline problem.”

In conclusion, he said,  “And I hope that this conference will begin to address this and continue to talk among the family about enrollment and success for our students in our institutions and beyond."

Vermont State College Chancellor Tim Donovan followed President Sullivan at the podium.  Opening in dramatic fashion, he said, “The conversation we are having today is vitally important, because quite frankly the future of this state is at risk.”  To explain, he cited a story told to him several years ago by Valerie Gardner, the long time principal of Champlain Valley Union High School (CVU).  “Val made an observation,” he said, “that has stayed with me through the years.  She said, ‘that 90% of my students when freshmen tell us that they want to go to college; whereas 50% of my seniors go to college.’”

“What happened?” he asked.  Citing data from a VSAC study, Tim provided a window into Val Gardner’s observation.  “70% of seniors who went on to college knew they would in the 6th grade or earlier, yet of those seniors not going to college, 70% didn’t know that until they were juniors in high school.  Therein lies a window of opportunity in this state,” Tim said, his inference that midway through high school something happens to change students minds about college.  He ticked off some of the factors he thought precipitated the drop-off.  The high cost of higher education in Vermont, for one.  Low funding levels, for another. His sense that though the “cost of delivering the educational product is about what it aught to be, it is less subsidized in this state and as a consequence, sticker shock sinks in just about the time families begin to think about how they will afford college for their child.

Tim spent the remainder of his remarks talking about the challenges facing the state’s implementation of the Common Core.  The Common Core, familiar to everyone in the room, is the state-led standards initiative developed and agreed to by a majority of the nation’s state educators as to what and how a specific body of knowledge and content will be taught and mastered.  This so students will have gained during their K-12 education the skills and knowledge needed upon graduation to succeed in college and career.  In accord with Vermont’s effort to put Common Core into action, Tim spoke highly of the Flexible Pathways Initiative (FPI), a bill recently passed by the Vermont legislature, which encourages state school districts to break away from traditional approaches to education and to find creative ways to achieve postsecondary readiness, and increase secondary school completion and continuation rates. 

“The Flexible Pathways Initiative,” he said, “lays the groundwork” going forward for Vermont’s educators, in implementing the Common Core, if we are “willing to embrace these changes and leverage them.”  Key to the FPI, Tim explained, is it is built upon a proficiency-based graduation model, which recognizes that students learn at different rates and have different interests, passions, and potential.  It takes a “program that has grown from grassroots in the state, dual-enrollment, and codifies it in public law and expands it,” he said, thereby “creating opportunities for kids to do their freshman year in college as their senior in high school.  Probably no greater reduction cost for a baccalaureate degree,” he added.

Chancellor Donovan concluded, saying, “It is incumbent upon us as post secondary educators to do three things.” The first, “To adapt our curriculum so that aligns with that of the Common Core.”  Number two, “We need to value and understand the Smarter Balanced assessments built into the Common Core, those adopted by most New England states, so that we can use the assessments as a predictor of placement and success, in ways that simple reliance upon SAT scores could never give us in the past.”  And third, “We need to have our colleges of education prepare our students to come out as teachers who can be successful in this environment of personalized education and performance based outcomes,” all in alignment with the Common Core.  And finally, he said, “There are challenges here for all of us, and great opportunities as we serve the 6500 born each year in this state as they progress through their education over the next 20 years.”

The third keynote speaker, Scott Giles, VSAC President and CEO, began, like Tim before him, with a story.  He told how once when at a conference at an elite institution, he asked for a show of hands from a group of students to the following question, “How many of you think that you are here solely on your own merit? Of course every single hand in the room went up,” he said.  Then asking, “How many of you had parents that went to select institutions in this country? And when about 90% of the hands went up,” he said to them, “As a researcher I can predict with confidence whether you will go on to college and to a large extent what college you will go to, simply knowing the educational attainment of your parents.” 

He followed this with a second story.  He was sitting at the College of St. Joseph’s, a small school outside of Rutland, wrapping up a meeting, and a woman walked in, and said to him, “I just wanted to come in and tell you that I was a VSAC kid.”  What she was referring to, Scott explained, was that this young lady, now in her 30’s, and a college graduate, had benefited in high school from VSAC’s counseling program, an initiative designed to help first generation low income students first think about and then assist in going on to some form of post-secondary education.  She told him that when she was 16, she wanted nothing to do with school, and had no thoughts of ever pursuing an education after high school.  Now, after the counseling she received then, she had a Master’s Degree, and working at a career in her field.

Putting the two stories together for the audience, Scott said, “What is important here is that these stories speak to the challenges we face in Vermont, and why for us it is a social justice issue.” To elaborate, he spoke about the transformational nature of education, and that the differential between educational aspirations of students whose parents had education, the group in the first story, and those that didn’t, is that those in the latter group who did succeed in gaining some post-secondary education, like the young woman, is there was someone in their life that started a conversation with them that aligned their personal goals for themselves with education is some powerful and compelling way.  Moreover, their success changed upward the aspirations of their family members around them as well.  So each “individual success,” he said, “leads to generational change.”

To underscore his point, Scott spoke of the record of success of his organization’s counseling program, but qualified it saying that the need for counseling far exceeds his organization’s ability to supply it.  His challenge to the participants in the day’s Conversation, was to ask, how do we as an educational community find ways to serve the remaining 80+% of eligible students of the 17/18% served by VSAC’s counseling program.  If, he asked, the data shows that every student not only needs access to but benefits from current educational counseling, then why are we not doing this?  Moreover, the need for counseling exists not only for middle and high school students, but for those at the post-secondary level as well, he said, particularly during the first year when for many students transition to college can be so fraught with difficulties.  What is at stake, he said, is the benefit that accrues to the entire community if we collectively work to see that the “transition from middle to high school and beyond takes place in a way that allows students to make educational choices that enhance their opportunity for success and that they’re not closing doors.” 

In closing, Scott spoke in praise of the participants at the Conversation.  “One of the fabulous things about this gathering by virtue of having people who come from the K-12 community and those of us who come from the higher education community, we each have some very powerful ideas and experiences to really support what works.”

The day’s session continued with an informative presentation by Jacqueline King from the Smarter Balanced Consortium, who spoke about the balanced assessment system put in place to evaluate the Common Core Standards, and its purposes and uses in transforming the relationship between K-12 and Higher Education.  Connecting Smarter Balanced to the day’s Conversation, she said that Higher Education is involved in Smarter Balanced because, “The Common Core State Standards are anchored in expectations for college readiness.”  The opportunity to improve college readiness, encourage enrollment, reduce remediation, improve lower division courses, and boost completion, she said, are fundamental to the day’s discussion of enrollment and success 

At lunch, Paul Hernandez, educator and well-known activist on college access, spoke briefly about innovative, community-based approaches to increasing enrollment and success in college. Dr. Hernandez’s remarks were a warm up to his public lecture later in the day, “Opening Doors to Higher Education: From At-Risk Student to Change Agent.”

At the afternoon session, the participants formed groups and were tasked with generating ideas and suggestions for addressing the day’s topic.  As each group reported out its ideas for improving enrollment and insuring success, it became clear from the diverse range of replies that the day’s Conversation had prompted the kind of thoughtful response the organizers of the event had hoped for.

In conclusion, Dean Miller thanked all the participants, for their contributions to the day’s Conversation.  This is only a beginning, she said, of a conversation that because of its importance, we have an obligation to continue, for it will have an impact not only on our students but also to the entire Vermont community.  I look forward to seeing all of you at our next gathering.