Every session our Legislature considers hundreds of bills, all of which aim to enhance our current status. This year legislators have an incredible opportunity to fundamentally improve the lives of thousands of Vermont students, and make a concrete investment in the future of our state. House Bill H.776 and Senate Bill S.233 expand the existing relationship between our public high schools and colleges to allow more students to take college-level courses while enrolled in high school, earning both secondary and post-secondary credits.

Less than half of Vermont's high school graduates continue their education beyond high school. As the state's population has grown stagnant and our student enrollment has dropped, it is important that we provide opportunities to keep our young people here and thriving in Vermont.

According to labor economists across the country and in Vermont, improving continuation rates of students for education beyond high school is an economic imperative. A high school education is no longer enough to meet the minimum requirements for most employers. Businesses need -- and desire -- employees with the skills and talents they learn in college or in trade or certificate programs.

We face a continued challenge in our effort to close the achievement gap between students from low-income households and their peers. This legislation offers a response to that challenge by making it possible for all students to take advantage of dual enrollment opportunities through courses available at the Vermont State Colleges (including the Community College of Vermont), the University of Vermont, and six of Vermont's independent colleges.

This investment in our students, now and in the coming years, will not only pay dividends in health and welfare, but also in terms of real Vermont dollars, as those individuals will become taxpayers, entrepreneurs and business owners, reduce the burden on social systems, and lift the entire state's economy. Additionally, students will realize savings by starting college not only better prepared, but by having actually received credits for courses completed successfully, which will reduce the heavy student debt load so many experience once they enter the workforce.

Funding for this initiative is already in place through the High School Completion Program (a specialized program including dual enrollment that is funded by a categorical grant from the Education Fund); Next Generation Funds (available at least through 2013 and currently supporting dual enrollment for approximately 650 students from nearly every Vermont high school); and federal funds that support hundreds of students earning college credit in their career and technical education center programs. This legislation seeks to build upon this base to create statewide equity of access.

Expand student aspirations so more students complete high school and are career and college ready; provide an excellent and personalized learning experience for all students; invest in the future workforce of our state; improve the lives of Vermont students now and in the future -- these are just some of the outcomes that are within our reach.

Please join me in supporting H.776 and S.233. Do not let this important opportunity pass us by.

Armando Vilaseca is the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Education. He is a resident of Westford.


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