In VSC debate, center on equity and access | VTDigger Commentary by Cary Brown

(5/4/20) - As Vermont moves forward with reimagining the future of its educational system, now is the time to center the principles of equity and access at the very core of that process. The VSC is already providing significant access to education and training for a wide range of fields, including high-wage, high-demand jobs that the Vermont economy needs. Consistently, the VSC has shown impressive innovation and creativity in broadening its reach around the state through partnerships, distance learning, and satellite locations. Focusing on equity in that access, and recognizing the impact on women, people of color, New Americans, first generation students, people with disabilities, and others whose voices aren’t always heard clearly enough, can only make it stronger.

For women in Vermont, the education that the VSC provides is an important piece of the puzzle of moving everyone toward economic well-being. In a time when women are just 20% of engineering graduates from all Vermont colleges, and only 10% of graduates in computer science, programs at Vermont Technical College can have a big impact on getting women into nontraditional fields with high salaries. Vermont Tech has a long history of recognizing the need for gender equity, and backing up that recognition with action, including programs at its Randolph Center campus that every year give hundreds of girls hands-on experiences with its STEM education.

Women in Vermont are already playing catch-up when it comes to earnings and jobs, and they need more access – not less – to higher education to turn that around. Vermont women are working at a rate that’s 8 percentage points above the national average, but they’re overrepresented in low-wage jobs. Only 60% of women working full time make enough to meet their basic needs. Women are the majority of Vermonters making less than $11 an hour – and education can be a key factor in changing that. A full 25% of women with only a high school education who work full-time earn less than $11 an hour; with a college degree, that number plunges to only 8.8%.

Many women recognize the power of higher education to change their circumstances, and we see this reflected in enrollment rates in the VSC. At Northern Vermont University, 63% of the students are women. A higher level of education means they are likely to experience lower gaps between their earnings as compared to men’s – a college degree cuts the wage gap in half as compared to women without a high school diploma.

Unfortunately, too few of our young women are accessing higher education. Only 57% of young women graduating from Vermont high schools go straight on to college. That has our state lagging well behind the national average of 72%, and dead last among the New England states. On the other hand, we have a good rate of women going back to education a little bit later in life. Northern Vermont University is a critical component with 38% of its students age 24 and up, and of those, a whopping 70% are women. The obstacles to their educations that many of these women face every day cannot be ignored. These are often women who have children, homes, jobs, and circumstances that don’t allow them to relocate or commute long distances for school. Losing local access could mean an end to their educations.

Data such as that cited here, compiled by the Change the Story VT partnership of the Vermont Women’s Fund, Vermont Works for Women, and the Vermont Commission on Women, is absolutely crucial to understanding the effects of decisions made about the future of the VSC. This is just a taste of what’s necessary, however – there are many populations in Vermont who are greatly affected by these decisions, and data is needed for all of them to ensure that equity is centered. Good decisions will also depend on comprehensive, critical analysis of that data, which takes time and deliberation. Vermont has a bit of time now that the proposal to close three campuses has been tabled. We should use that time in a way that puts equity absolutely front and center, ensuring that all Vermonters have access to the education they need.