Community College of VT

The Community College of Vermont’s office in downtown Bennington.

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When the Vermont State Colleges System announced it was providing free tuition for students pursuing training in nursing and other “critical occupations” at Castleton University, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College, it did so with the hope there would be strong demand for the roughly $5 million in federal funds set aside for the program.

Half a month into fiscal 2022, most of that money has been spoken for, due to demand more than doubling supply for free classes at those three schools. The system has put new awards at those campuses on pause and started a waiting list as it works to identify additional funding sources for the project.

“We had originally estimated we could serve approximately 500 students with the funds. Current numbers indicate we have over 1,000 eligible students and more on the wait list, about 40 percent of which are new students,” said Katherine Levasseur, the Vermont State Colleges System’s director of external and governmental affairs.

The program has not been impacted at the Community College of Vermont, and does not include $540,000 the state set aside for Vermont Tech’s paramedicine program, training emergency medical technicians and first responders.

But the system’s message to interested students is to continue to sign up and get on the waiting list. What’s more, millions of dollars in other scholarships funded by the Legislature, such as those for returning students and those seeking to complete degrees after time away from school, remain available.

“Students will still receive the financial aid packages we offer,” Levasseur said. “It’s just this particular scholarship we are pressing pause on.”

In initial conversations, Levasseur said the first preference to meet demand would be additional funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. A second option could be getting the permission to reallocate scholarship dollars that aren’t being fully utilized to the program.

NURSING DEMAND

The “critical occupations” covered by the free tuition scholarship offer include certificates, associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees in nursing, associate degrees for respiratory therapists and radiologic science, and certificates in web development, software development and paramedicine.

Two-thirds of the demand for the scholarship money is from students in nursing, Levasseur said.

She explained that nursing students in Vermont Tech’s career ladder model often enter the field after obtaining a practical nursing certificate and associate of science in nursing, and then return later for their Bachelor of Science in nursing. For some of those students, the offer of free tuition was a game-changer that led them to pursuit of a Bachelor of Science in nursing right away. “It’s such a tremendous opportunity to go tuition-free for a year,” Levasseur said.

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The free tuition program is still being offered at the Community College of Vermont, which has locations in Bennington and Brattleboro.

“For students not yet admitted, we are encouraging their continued interest and application, as we work to secure additional funding,” Levasseur said. “If and when funds become available, we will then continue to award eligible students on a first come, first served basis.”

In the meantime, the scholarship programs approved along with the training dollars as part of the fiscal 2022 budget — the Green Mountain Grad program, the 802 Opportunity Program, the Welcome Home Scholarship, and the Degree Completion Scholarship — are still accepting applications.

It’s the second time in two years that demand has exceeded supply for free tuition programs at the state colleges. Last fall, VSCS offered a workplace development program in which Vermonters affected by the COVID-19 pandemic could access up to two free courses at any VSCS institution. That program sold out in a week.

Levasseur and Gov. Phil Scott both said the strong demand shows there’s significant appetite for training programs that help Vermonters build job skills and earn credentials — degrees or certificates — leading to higher-paying job opportunities in growth fields.

“It’s good news that people want to improve their skill set — something that’s essential as we move forward,” Scott said during his Tuesday news briefing.

Scott said he’s willing to discuss with the Legislature whether to approve more ARPA money for the program.

“We think this is a strong indication of the demand for higher education, workforce development, and upskilling opportunities,” Levasseur said Monday. “This is also the first time we’ve been able to offer a free tuition program. It’s a novel and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that can truly impact a student’s economic standing — both in their progress toward the achievement of a credential or degree and in their economic footing when they leave school due to the reduced debt they are saddled with — that we think will make a huge difference.”

Why is the program not affected at CCV? The simple answer, Levasseur explained, is that admissions at CCV usually take place in the two weeks before classes start, while admissions and financial aid decisions at the state colleges and universities are handled months in advance. Knowing this, the system set aside dollars for the free tuition program at CCV in advance.

Levasseur also said the popularity of free tuition programs might open the door to conversations about whether Vermont can adopt and sustain a free tuition program at its state colleges, similar to those offered by other states.

“We think this is a tremendous opportunity for students, and a tremendous conversation starter … on what this means for students, what it means for student affordability, and what it means means for their ability to pursue high-demand, high paying careers,” she said.

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for Vermont News & Media. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.