Colleges across the country are holding graduation ceremonies this month where commencement speakers will wax on poetic about the many challenges and opportunities these young scholars face as they enter the next stage of their lives.
What these speakers probably won't talk about, however, is the mountain of debt that graduates face after receiving their hard-earned degrees. The average four-year college graduate picking up diplomas this spring across Vermont owes $28,000 in student loans, $1,000 more than the national average.
There's no denying that college, or any type of post-secondary education, is a sound investment in the future, one that leads to better paying jobs and greater security for tomorrow's workforce. But high tuition costs and the fear and risks associated with piling on too much student debt create a huge barrier for too many people.
As a result, "too many good students in Vermont and throughout the country are deciding against going to college because they fear they will face a lifetime of paying down student loans," U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said at a news conference Monday.
He said this indebtedness has an impact on their options after college. Student loan debt is making it much harder for young people to get mortgages to buy homes, one reason why home ownership rates for young adults are among the lowest in decades. Young people also are putting off marriage and not having children. The Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department have both issued warnings that high levels of student loan debt could retard economic growth by driving down consumer demand.
That's why we're encouraged by legislation Sanders will introduce at the federal level, as well as recent measures passed by our own state legislature that strive to make college more affordable to middle- and low-income Vermonters.
Sanders' proposal would expand "dual enrollment" programs that allow high school juniors and seniors to take college-level classes and earn credit that counts toward both high school and college graduation, thus reducing the cost and time necessary to complete a college degree. It has been especially effective in increasing college enrollments among low-income students and those who are the first in their families to go to college, according to Sanders.
"We are living in a highly competitive global economy and if the United States is going to succeed we need to have the best educated workforce in the entire world," Sanders said. "But the sad truth is we are now competing against other nations around the world that make it much easier for their young people to go to college."
Separately Monday, Gov. Peter Shumlin held a news conference to thank state lawmakers for approving the Vermont Strong Scholars Program, which helps pay for college and provide more internship and workplace options for students.
Coupled with legislation passed earlier in the two-year legislative session that ended Saturday, eligible Vermont students can now attend up to two years of college at a Vermont institution for free. The dual enrollment and early college programs, approved in 2013, also make it possible for high school students to attend college for free during their junior and senior years.
The Vermont Strong Scholars Program, in partnership with Vermont Student Assistance Corp., will provide tuition loan forgiveness to graduates who stay in Vermont to work in certain fields. In addition, lawmakers added $250,000 to expand internship opportunities, reflecting their commitment to connecting students with on-the-ground job experience and training, and creating links between potential graduates and Vermont employers.
"Today young people need additional education beyond high school to get the best jobs," Shumlin said. "What we have accomplished with these programs ensures more Vermonters can afford that opportunity, particularly students who thought college was out of reach."
None of these initiatives are new concepts. Dual enrollment programs have been used sporadically around the country for years now. Just recently several news outlets reported on the inspiring story of a Florida girl who graduated from high school and college in the same week through the Broward College dual enrollment program for high-performing high school students. She now plans to go on to law school and someday be a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
Given her obvious drive to excel, we have no doubt she will reach those goals. But if it hadn't been for the dual enrollment program making college more affordable, she might never have had the chance to try. With that in mind we can't help but wonder about all of the other wasted potential out there, all of those young people who could go on to achieve great things if only given the chance.
As for Vermont's own tuition forgiveness program, that also is an idea that is gaining traction around the country. For Vermont this would solve the problem of our youngest and brightest workforce leaving the Green Mountain State for greener pastures elsewhere.
But while these programs are not new, they are not yet widespread. Hopefully the legislation Sanders plans to introduce, and the bills already approved in Vermont, will help expand such programs to countless other young people who have in them the potential to do great things for our state and our country, if only given the chance.