A report issued last week by the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. and the Vermont State Colleges System shows a trend toward better completion rates and college retention in our state.

But more needs to be done to keep young people in Vermont and have them contributing — over the long term — to our struggling economy.

The results of the comprehensive study zeroed in on Vermont’s high school class of 2012. The study, which was rolled out at an education summit, was based on enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse and responses to the VSAC 2012 Senior Survey, which was completed by 85 percent of Vermont high school seniors.

“The results of this unique longitudinal look at Vermont college students revealed good news about the state, as well as significant opportunities for improvement,” the report’s authors wrote.

Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System, was quoted as saying, “Experts estimate that by 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require education or training beyond high school. The Vermont State Colleges System is on the front lines of helping all Vermonters, including first generation and non-traditional students, prepare for a fulfilling professional life, and we must do more to ensure they can be successful.”

It goes without saying that post-secondary education leads to positive economic factors — the kinds of factors that reshape communities.

Obtaining a college degree is associated with higher levels of homeownership, better health and lower unemployment. Students who take longer to graduate accumulate more student loan debt, and those who never finish accrue the debt but never receive the economic benefit of a college degree.

“Some 55,000 Vermonters are in that last group: those who have some college education, but no degree. So, looking at the factors that contribute to degree non-completion — and brainstorming solutions to reduce those barriers — is extremely relevant to the economic vitality of our state,” said Scott Giles, head of VSAC.

According to the report, Vermont outperforms other states, but still has plenty of challenges — and potential solutions.

Statewide, 60 percent of students from the class of 2012 who enrolled full-time at a four-year college obtained their degree “on time,” or within four years — a completion rate that is 13 points higher than the national average. However, when you broaden the population to include all members of that high school class, including those who did not go to college at all, the four-year completion rate drops to 34 percent, the report states.

“So, almost two-thirds of Vermont high school students did not receive a college degree within four years,” said Spaulding. “There are multiple reasons for this, including affordability challenges for many Vermonters and low state support for public higher education. This isn’t where we want to be, and that’s the reason we’re here today.”

In addition, according to the report findings, graduation rates also varied by the type of institution that students attended in Vermont. St. Michael’s College had the highest completion rate, while Vermont State Colleges lagged behind, indicating that more work is needed to support those students to ensure they achieve a degree.

Rightly so, the summit sought solutions. It included conversations about how parents, high school educators, school counselors and legislators can act differently to help improve student outcomes. Some of those ideas included a possible focus on one decision point — when a student is contemplating a college transfer — where additional counseling may help to improve completion rates, and where policy changes at the state and institutional levels may further improve the odds of success.

The study also suggests that, at the high school level, more attention should be given to upper-level math and AP courses, particularly in Vermont’s most rural counties. Finally, the results underscored the important role that parents play in setting their children up for success; notably, by talking to their kids about college plans well before the 9th grade.

These are the conversations Vermont leaders — at all levels — should be having.

We will not dig out of the budgetary hole, nor can we change the demographics of our state, unless we utilize younger Vermonters. Sustainability depends on longevity.

For too long we have allowed the brain drain to siphon talent to other states. We’ve become anemic, but this study suggests we are getting stronger. And that is good news for Vermont.

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