Here’s a campaign issue that’s seemingly tailor-made for Phil Scott. But somehow I doubt that he’ll capitalize on it because, well, he doesn’t have any solutions to offer.
In a new, comprehensive study of college affordability across the country, Vermont finished a dismal 46th. It’s one of the least affordable places to go to college.
What’s even sadder is that just about every state is doing badly, and we’re doing worse than badly. This, according to the 2016 College Affordability Diagnosis just out from the University of Pennsylvania. Its nationwide findings:
— Every state has lost ground on college affordability since 2008.
— Financial aid doesn’t go as far as it used to, and most full-time students cannot make enough to work their way through college debt-free — even community college.
— Low- and middle-income families face significant barriers that limit their ability to invest in education.
This, despite the bounteous lip service paid by politicians to the importance of accessible higher education.
That’s the national picture. Vermont’s is even worse.
And we ought to be worried, researcher Joni Finney told the Times Argus:
“Vermont needs to be concerned, because its young population is declining. And so one of the questions is, how is Vermont going to address workforce needs? Sixty-five percent of the jobs in Vermont require post-secondary education by 2020.”
So, even if our economy continues to grow, where will the educated workers come from? And here’s more bad news:
“Your public two-year institutions — those institutions are often thought of as the safety net of higher education — rank 48th in the country,” Finney said. “So low-income students are really forced, with pretty poor choices, to go to post-secondary education and either work full-time and try to go part-time — which puts you at a greater risk of dropping out — or borrowing a lot of money.”
Which means it’s extremely difficult for young working-class people to attain a more prosperous future. And why are our institutions so unaffordable? Take a guess.
The state regularly ranks near the bottom nationally for state funding, per-student, of public higher education, its public higher education system is among the most tuition-dependent in the country, and the state’s college going rates are also among the lowest in the country.
Okay, Phil. You’re constantly talking about Vermont’s affordability problem — and about our looking demographic crisis, with an aging population and not enough young people in their prime working years. The cost of higher education is right at the crossroads of those two issues. Vermont clearly has a problem. So, Phil, what are you going to do about it?
I don’t know what he can offer beyond his usual bland platitudes. He’s promising to hold the line on the budget, so no meaningful increases for our criminally underfunded colleges and universities. Tax cuts (even if he could make them happen) won’t help students who aren’t in the workforce yet.
Meanwhile, inaccessible education is constricting our economic future. We don’t have enough educated workers already, and it’s going to get worse if we con’t do something about it.
As we have previously discussed, our demographic crisis is NOT a matter of young people fleeing Vermont. Young people are highly mobile; while a lot do leave Vermont, just about as many move in. It’s basically a wash.
The cause of the demographic crisis is our chronically low birth rate. For more than a generation, Vermonters haven’t been having enough kids to replenish the population. Unless we can successfully incentivize big families, which I doubt*, we have to draw more young people to Vermont.
*The best thing we could do is to guarantee paid parental leave. In an age of two-income households, the lack of paid leave is a powerful disincentive to having children.
The best way to get people to live in Vermont is to expose them to our state’s numerous charms. The best way to do that is to make higher education more accessible.
Unfortunately, we’re really bad at that. We need to find a way to make it better. Any ideas from the five gubernatorial candidates would be most welcome. But given the extent of the problem, they’d better be great big ideas. No more incrementalism.