In early 2022, the J. Warren & Lois McClure Foundation announced the Free Degree Promise through the Early College program at CCV. Vermont’s Early College program allows high school seniors to complete their last year of high school and their first year of college at the same time, tuition-free. The Free Degree Promise builds on Early College to give students who continue at CCV the chance to earn an associate degree at no cost. The program is opening doors for students across the state: last fall, CCV enrolled its largest Early College cohort yet, including greater numbers of low-income, first-generation, and BIPOC students.
We spoke with students who are enrolled in the Free Degree Promise, as well as current Early College students who plan to continue for their second free year. Each has their own unique story, but one theme resounds: the McClure Free Degree Promise is a gift, helping young students begin their adult lives on solid footing.
Ahead of the Game
Champlain Valley Union High School senior Aiden Robertson has a very clear career goal: he wants to become a financial advisor. Early College, he says, is setting him up to reach that goal by giving him a jump start on his education. For Aiden, it’s about “being able to get ahead of the game—I really like doing that.”
Aiden always planned on going to college after high school, and he’s excited to finally be diving in. “Doing this was like ‘alright, it’s right now, it’s no longer in the future. I get to jump right into college.” He plans to stay at CCV next year to take advantage of the McClure Free Degree Promise and complete his degree in business. For Aiden, the program is a no-brainer, and he thinks it is for others too. “I feel like those two free years could definitely change a lot of people’s lives, especially if they wanted to go to college but they just couldn’t afford it.”
Aiden says he’s been surprised by how much support he and his Early College cohort receive. “I feel like there’s a lot of events for Early College students,” he says, with the message from CCV staff that “ ‘if you need anything, come talk to us.’ That’s not what I expected…I feel like it’s a good step to making high school students feel a lot more comfortable in a brand-new environment.”
Prepared for My Next Steps
“I want to be a travel nurse,” says Dalya Almogalli. She recalls that in her home country of Iraq, accessing healthcare was difficult, if not impossible. “That’s not how it should be,” she says. “Medical care is an important thing that a lot of people need. That’s something that gives me passion to be a travel nurse—I want to help other countries.”
The Burlington High School senior is now halfway through her Early College year at CCV-Winooski, and she’s learning valuable skills that will help her take her next steps. “I think Early College is really a good opportunity because you’re learning about real college. As a high school student, we don’t know how college works, how professors are compared to regular teachers, how to manage your time.” But Early College introduces students to all of it, Dalya says, so that “when you go to whatever university you’re going to go to, you’re already prepared.”
When she found out about the McClure Free Degree Promise program from her advisor, she knew she wanted to sign up. “I’m going to college for free, getting a free degree, and taking some of the nursing-required classes so when I transfer my credits it’s already done. That’s an opportunity I cannot waste.”
Dalya’s goal, after her second year at CCV, is to enroll in the nursing program at UVM. And she believes that no matter where her path ultimately leads, Early College is giving her a strong start. “[It’s] a privilege to continue my education for another year for free. Even if nursing didn’t work out, you never know, I will still have my associate degree. I will still be able to work in hospitals, labs, and many other jobs.”
A Chance to Explore
High school wasn’t the best experience for McKinley Pfaff. But she had a good relationship with her guidance counselor, who encouraged her to try Early College at CCV-St. Albans—and she’s glad she made the leap.
“It was good for me,” McKinley says. “It opened my eyes to more than just high school, and I started getting better grades and it was just a different experience and I’m really glad that I did Early College.” The biggest benefit, she says, is that she had the chance to explore. “It was good to get a head start for me because I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet…I’m very much a person who likes to be prepared, so I think it prepared me and really opened my eyes to what’s out there.”
This year, McKinley is using the McClure Free Degree Promise to finish her health science degree, and she hopes to transfer to the radiology program at Vermont Tech. Simply put, she sees a college education as a ticket to job security. “I enjoy going to work more than anything,” she says. “Getting past the school part and into the workforce is really my motivation…I stuck with the college route because I think it will help me get a job wherever I go.”
The Best Future Possible
Morgan Predom is a tenacious teenager. A single mother of an 18-month-old son, she’s determined to complete her college degree, despite the pressures of juggling work, school, and parenting. “I have always felt like I’ve needed to go to college,” she says. “And now with my son, I want to give him the best life and future possible for him and myself.”
She had such a positive experience in Early College at CCV-Rutland that she’s encouraging younger students to consider it. “‘It was the best decision I could have ever made,’” she tells others. Morgan did not have a good experience in high school. Early College, she says, “was the perfect escape. The students, the teachers and all the staff are wonderful. And so helpful. I urge [others] to at least check out, read more, come here and talk to the staff about this program.”
Morgan is now well on her way to a liberal studies degree, which she will complete at no cost to her, thanks to the McClure Free Degree Promise. “It means everything to me,” she said of her tuition-free education. “I never thought that I would get this opportunity. I didn’t know that there was financial aid out there…I just didn’t know how much help there would be.”