Vermont by Degrees

Education, and learning in general, has consistently been the world’s greatest equalizer since the beginning of time. Need to stay warm? Learn to harness energy and create fire. Need protection from the elements? Learn to create simple tools and how to build structures. Can’t keep up with your predators? Learn to run faster.

As the father of two young children, I have ample opportunity to watch learning in action and how it creates equality, daily. The more the 2-year-old learns, the more he is able to accomplish on par with his 4-year-old sibling. The more he accomplishes, the deeper his desire to learn becomes.

These examples are simple, and happen over time almost as a rule. Whether it is ancient evolution or standard human growth, learning equalizes, always.

Historically speaking, it has been a lack of access to formal education that has been an inhibitor of equality and growth. Whether it is a lack of opportunity, a lack of aspiration, or a more likely combination of the two, access plays a significant role in today’s higher-education landscape in Vermont — especially in its rural, blue-collar communities.

Of course, it’s true: Not everyone needs to go to college. What’s clear, however, is that everyone needs to continue to learn, and the data points to the reality that some form of higher education leads to greater prosperity and better health, and opens doors to a more equitable future. In October 2018, the national unemployment rate was double for those with only a high school diploma as opposed to a bachelor’s degree. As a group, citizens who do not continue their educations beyond high school are much more likely to live in poverty, have more health problems and to have children who also do not pursue education beyond high school.

A recent op-ed from Vermont State Colleges System Chancellor Jeb Spaulding provided the following, sobering insight: “Vermont has one of the very best high school graduation rates in the country, something to be proud of, but at the same time we have one of the lower rates of high school graduates going on to attend college — indeed, the lowest in New England. Even more concerning is the clear inequality in college continuation rates between the “haves” and “have nots” — only 38 percent of low-income Vermont high school graduates continue on to college, compared to 59 percent for non-economically disadvantaged graduates.”

So, how do we address the higher education naysayers, those among us who reject the value of higher education and believe that a liberal arts education is a culprit rather than a cure? We point to the employment data above. We provide more access. We improve affordability. We help guide students along a path to create impactful, meaningful outcomes to which others from similar backgrounds may aspire.

Over the past year, Castleton University has increased its outreach to early college students — those students who benefit from a free year of college while still in high school — in an effort to increase access to a four-year degree pathway. In addition to the traditional early college experience, the university has also added two innovative academies that provide students with a highly focused curriculum in specific areas of interest. The Vermont Academy of Fine and Performing Arts at Castleton University is designed to provide students with an immersive experience in developing their passion for art, creative writing, music or theater, while the Castleton University STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) Academy is designed to provide students an immersive experience that further develops their critical thinking skills and stimulates their passions while opening their minds to careers in these high-demand areas. This free first year of college addresses access and affordability in an innovative way.

Castleton has also created dozens of articulation agreements and transfer pathways that lead to affordable advanced degree options for traditionally underserved populations. Consider the fact that a Vermont student can attend Community College of Vermont, graduate with an associate degree, and complete his or her degree at Castleton while paying the same tuition as they did while at CCV. The outcome is a four-year degree at nearly 25 percent less than spending all four years at Castleton. Coupled with a year of early college, the affordability is multiplied. When combined with Castleton’s 3+2 articulation agreement with Vermont Law School, students have the potential to earn a Juris Doctorate by the time they are 21 years of age and at a fraction of the cost. Literally dozens of pathways across multiple programs have been created to increase access and affordability.

Finally, when considering outcomes, consider this: According to the World Economic Forum’s recent Future of Jobs Report the top 10 skills for jobs in 2020 are all central focuses of Castleton’s traditional liberal arts education — skills like complex problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility, to name a few.

Castleton applies the liberal arts model along with its growing list of 400 community partnerships that provide experiential learning through internships, research opportunities and clinical placements in real-world settings, creating a prepared workforce for Vermont and beyond.

As Castleton University continues to grow and evolve, we are adding more streamlined degree options such as our three-year Resort Hospitality Management bachelor’s degree, delivered in a cooperative education model with Killington Resort. Cooperative education, where students earn credits for paid positions in real-world settings in addition to theoretical classroom experiences, will better prepare the workforce to meet the demands of the jobs of tomorrow. We are adding more online and distance-learning programs to help close the opportunity gap for nontraditional, working populations who seek to advance their careers without disrupting their lives. We are creating certificate programs and remaining nimble in a disruptive environment.

And, even throughout all of the disruption, change and growth, Castleton University continues to do what it has done for nearly 250 years — create equality through education for the benefit of Vermont.

Jeff Weld is Castleton University dean of advancement.

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