Now in its second year, the McClure Foundation’s promise to all Vermont high school students in the classes of 2023-2026 of a free degree through the state’s Early College program is reinforcing that when college is affordable, young people enroll.
“I’ll have my associate degree this spring. And it’s crazy to think about it. I’m almost there,” says Savannah LaFountain, Free Degree Promise student. “Without that added stress of having to pay for my college I can move on with other things in my life.”
More than 235 high school seniors from 90% of Vermont’s high schools and tech centers enrolled in Early College at the Community College of Vermont (CCV) this fall knowing they are eligible for a free degree. That number marks a 70% increase in CCV’s Early College enrollment since the Free Degree Promise was announced in April 2022 and includes nearly double the number of first-generation college students as well as increased participation among low-income students and students of color.
“The promise of a free, fast-tracked associate degree is a game changer for Vermont youth,” says CCV President Joyce Judy speaking on National First-Generation Student Day. “It’s making college the easy choice for students, especially those who didn’t see themselves going to college before now.”
“It’s been incredible,” agreed Vicki Shaddock, whose daughter Chloe is one of the 75+ Early College completers who have continued at CCV toward their free degree. “She has blossomed at CCV. She’ll graduate in May and then she has an associate degree in her pocket to do whatever she wants with.”
What is the Free Degree Promise?
The Free Degree Promise is an accelerated pathway to a free CCV degree. The Promise builds on the state’s existing Early College program, which allows Vermont high school seniors to complete their last year of high school and their first year of college at the same time, earning free college credits that also count toward graduation from high school.
Students who complete the Early College program receive a second year of free college at CCV, giving them the chance to earn an associate degree of their choosing the year after high school graduation. The Promise covers tuition and fees after federal and state financial aid and offers a living stipend and enhanced advising. Students can choose from CCV’s 11 associate degree programs, earning credits that transfer easily to four-year programs at Vermont State University as well as UVM, Champlain and other colleges and universities in Vermont and beyond.
“I was ready to push myself, to take my learning to the next level,” said Blake Clark, who is among the first graduates of the Free Degree Promise. He plans on using his degree to open his own business once he becomes a certified electrician.
Good for Vermonters, Good for Vermont
McClure Foundation Executive Director Carolyn Weir says that a primary goal of the Promise is raising aspirations. “Conversations about life after high school should be focused on what youth want rather than what families can afford,” she said. “When young people know a degree is within reach, they can imagine a life full of opportunity. We’re hearing of young people staying in Vermont because of the Free Degree Promise.”
Weir says CCV is the right partner for the Promise because community colleges are engines of economic mobility and because most Early College students in the state enroll at CCV. With locations within 25 miles of 95% of Vermonters, CCV serves the greatest number of Vermonters of any college in the state.
“Education after high school is an investment in a thriving future for Vermonters and for Vermont,” said Dan Smith, President & CEO of the Vermont Community Foundation, which is the parent organization of the McClure Foundation and a partner in the Free Degree Promise initiative. “No matter the path, education opens doors and gives people flexibility and control over their future.”
Employers are taking note. “Programs like these enable Vermonters to reach their full potential by supporting them in taking an important step towards advancing their education and embracing lifelong careers in fields like healthcare,” says Anna Noonan, President & COO, Central Vermont Medical Center. “We at CVMC know firsthand that CCV is an innovative partner in supporting career development. This opportunity is a game changer for first-generation students and for employers alike.”
Even beyond Vermont, the program is getting attention. Promise partners were recently invited to join Accelerate ED, a movement that brings together teams from across the country committed to providing debt-free college and career pathways to their state or region’s high school students.
While it’s exciting to think about scaling the program, says Weir, McClure and CCV also remain focused on supporting current students, especially those who stand to benefit the most from a degree.
“To get those two years, and not be in debt, and get farther…it opens a lot of doors and opportunities,” said OJ Daring, a former Winooski High School and CCV Early College student.