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VSAC study of college completion rates sparks conversation about improving higher education outcomes

Vermont outperforms other states, but still has plenty of challenges – and potential solutions

WINOOSKI (December 4, 2018) – The Vermont Student Assistance Corp. and the Vermont State Colleges System were joined by state leaders in the education, business, and policymaking communities at a summit today to discuss results of a comprehensive VSAC study that looked at college retention and completion rates among Vermont’s high school class of 2012.

The study was based on enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse and responses to the VSAC 2012 Senior Survey, which was completed by 85% 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.

(Key research findings can be found here and summit presentation is here.)

“I want to thank our partners for joining us at today’s summit,” said Scott Giles, president and CEO at VSAC, Vermont’s only statewide organization dedicated to helping Vermonters save, plan and pay for college. “VSAC is all about supporting Vermont students, whether it be through career and education counseling, grant programs, or student loan offerings. This research is one more critical part of that support structure, because it helps us identify where we can improve throughout our education system.”

Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System and co-host of the summit, added, “Experts estimate that by 2020, 65% 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.”

Obtaining a college degree is associated with higher levels of home ownership, 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,” Giles said.

Vermont outperforms other states, but still has plenty of challenges – and potential solutions

Statewide, 60% 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 4-year completion rate drops to 34%.

“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.”

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

The summit included a conversation 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 level 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.

Further discussion: Importance of math; rural counties falling behind; “transfer penalty”

The study revealed a handful of demographic factors, including gender, geography (urban or rural), and whether the student’s parents attended college, that each had an influence on whether the student would complete their degree.

Females from families who have a parent with a 4-year college degree are most likely to continue their education after high school; nearly 7 out of 10 immediately enrolled. Least likely to continue their education are males from families who don’t have a parent with a college degree. Only 4 in 10 first-generation males enrolled immediately. Much more work is needed to close this gender gap and encourage more boys from economically disadvantaged families to enroll in college and finish on time.

Not surprisingly, high school preparation and achievement also played a key role. In fact, completion of upper-level math courses and Advanced Placement courses, as well as high school GPA, had stronger associations with college completion than did the demographic factors of gender or parental education – reinforcing the notion of education as “the great equalizer.” The completion rates of the most demographically disadvantaged group in this study – males whose parents did not go to college – increased almost 30 percentage points when those students had completed Algebra II and had earned an overall GPA of A.

The study also showed that the county in which the student attended high school was an important factor in predicting postsecondary degree completion, even among students who grew up in households headed by college-educated parents. The more rural areas were the more challenged, with 32% of students from Essex County and 38% of students from Orleans County completing their degrees within four years, as opposed to 51% percent of students from Chittenden County.

Another notable risk factor for non-completion included transferring schools, a decision made by 10% of Vermont’s class of 2012 who began college that fall. However, students who transferred schools were almost 30 percentage points less likely to graduate within four years than those who remained at their starting schools. This likely stems from the fact that, according to the federal Government Accountability Office, students lose about 40% of their credits when they transfer.

“Today’s meeting is the start of a very important conversation about the work we must do together to improve the support structures and ultimately the outcomes for our students,” Giles concluded.

A complete copy of the study report can be downloaded here.

About VSAC – Changing Lives through Education and Training since 1965

Vermont Student Assistance Corporation is a public, nonprofit agency established by the Vermont Legislature in 1965 to help Vermonters achieve their education and training goals after high school. VSAC serves students and their families in grades 7-12, as well as adults returning to school, by providing education and career planning services, need-based grants, scholarships and education loans. VSAC has awarded more than $600 million in grants and scholarships for Vermont students, and also administers Vermont’s 529 college savings plan. Share your VSAC story by email to or submit a video to YouTube. Find us at or check in on Facebook and Twitter. #changing lives