“Let us not be content to wait and see what will happen, but give us the determination to make the right things happen.” — Horace Mann

Neither of my parents went to college. Yet I can remember first considering higher education in second grade. I was only interested in careers with more than four syllables like paleontologist, anesthesiologist or archeologist. At that time, I was relatively aware of my family’s situation and the associated challenges, especially in the rural towns of Rutland County where I grew up. Finishing college felt like the path to success and the key to financial security, even if I didn’t use those words at the time.

In May, I completed my lifelong aspiration when I graduated from Northern Vermont University with a degree in Environmental and Political Science. This summer, the Vermont Community Foundation hired me for a two-year position as the inaugural David Rahr Community Philanthropy Fellow (17 syllables for those keeping track). I work on the grant-making team, helping to direct grants and investments to make a difference in Vermont. It is inspiring to hear the many ways Vermonters are tackling the big issues.

As a part of the on-boarding process for the fellowship, I have learned a lot about the opportunity gap in Vermont and beyond. In one broad stroke, the opportunity gap is marked by the lack of social and economic mobility among people born into poverty. This is, in part, because of the many advantages wealthier parents can afford for their children, including higher education.

How then, does American society promote social mobility? According to Horace Mann, education, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of human conditions.

If this is the case, then creating greater access to higher education should be an all-important goal for communities and governments who care about their constituents.

In 2013, the Vermont Legislature passed Act 77, which is currently doing what Horace Mann envisioned. Among other things, Act 77 created dual-enrollment which allows every high schooler in Vermont to take two free college classes at no cost. It also led to universal access to the early college program, allowing a select number of seniors to finish their high school careers with a full college course load. This means students can graduate high school with up to 42 college credits — almost one-third of the total needed for a diploma.

Growing up, I learned the value of these programs first-hand.

Through Upward Bound, I used the dual enrollment vouchers available to me. Taking these classes showed me college was not out of reach. When it came time to apply for the Early College Program, my high school guidance counselor advised me not to pursue the opportunity because there might be more qualified individuals. This was despite the fact I had already taken classes at the institution where I was applying and had done quite well. Without Upward Bound’s support and guidance, I may have never filled out the application. I finished high school with 36 college credits thanks to dual-enrollment and the Early College Program.

Now, I am one of a few hundred students who have taken advantage of this opportunity — in my case, through Castleton University. Collectively, Vermont students have saved in the range of millions of dollars.

Based on my experience, here is what I recommend:

To legislators: Expand these opportunities, they are of great value. Ideally, expansions will focus on first-generation and/or economically disadvantaged populations as they face the most barriers to pursuing a degree — a crucial ingredient for economic success.

To students: Take full advantage of all opportunities, find a community that will lift you up, apply for grants on time, and pursue every scholarship you qualify for.

To adults/parents: Whether college or a certificate, encourage students to go beyond high school, they and society will be better off for it.

Brockton Corbett, a May 2019 graduate of Northern Vermont University who grew up in Wells and Poultney, is serving as the Inaugural David Rahr Community Philanthropy Fellow at the Vermont Community Foundation.

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