VSAC has been here for Vermont students for more than half a century. We were founded in 1965 upon the belief that education and training lie at the heart of ensuring social and economic equity and opportunity in our society. Since our very first day, that principle has driven us to advocate for programs that we know make education and training more attainable, equitable, and achievable.
When the pandemic hit last year, it upended life as we know it for Vermonters. Students and families were suddenly dealing with financial, technological, and social hardships, as schools went remote, families were isolated from their usual support systems, and students faced a chasm of uncertainty as they tried to make decisions about their next steps.
And to an even greater extent than we have seen in the past, the economic impact of the pandemic fell strongly along education lines. Across the nation and in Vermont, those with less or no education and training beyond high school were more likely to experience the brunt of the economic, social, and health impacts of the pandemic.
Over the past year, VSAC worked quickly to make sure our students and families were not forgotten. Last March, after packing up their office computers and setting up operations in their homes, VSAC loan counselors immediately began reaching out to advise students on how to access their CARES Act student loan benefits. We also partnered with Governor Scott and the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation to lead a 15-state effort to provide payment relief to more than 1,500 additional Vermont students whose loans were not covered under the CARES Act.
With the CARES Act funding that Vermont appropriated to VSAC, we were able to provide more than $2 million in additional financial aid to Vermonters who were negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. We also introduced a new technology scholarship that allowed more than 1,400 low- and moderate-income Vermonters to purchase laptops and/or high-speed internet to allow them to transition to remote learning. Finally, ever mindful of the fact that being able to access education often depends on ancillary services such as transportation and child care, we also awarded 110 microgrants, worth a total of $43,480, to Vermont students, ensuring they could continue their education.
To the single mom in the Northeast Kingdom, working towards her bachelor’s degree while working two jobs, these supports were a lifesaver.
The pandemic has highlighted the critical importance of education and training that all Vermonters must have to fill essential roles in our communities – like health care, mental health, technology, and manufacturing. They provide personal and financial security, not just for those occupying the jobs, but for all Vermonters whose well-being is served and enhanced through those professions.
That’s the bright light that we should all work toward. And it all begins with education.
To that end, VSAC continues to innovate and enhance its programs for Vermont students. This year, we have proposed 802Opportunity, a free tuition program for students attending Community College of Vermont with a family income of $50,000 or less. With enactment of this program, Vermont would join 14 other states that have made community college tuition-free.
In order to ensure that more Vermont high school graduates are adequately prepared to launch promising careers, we hope to serve up to four more high schools through our Aspirations Program, which boosts the number of high school graduates continuing to college or training. We also propose increasing the amount and number of stipends available to low-income dual-enrollment students to defray the costs of books, fees and transportation to their early college courses.
And particularly because of how the pandemic has forced many to rethink their career paths, we also anticipate serving more Vermonters 25 and older who are looking to either complete their degrees or augment them with additional job-specific training or certifications.
In order to be able to help these Vermonters achieve their goals – which, in turn, helps the state achieve its workforce development goals – we believe there is no better investment than education, and we are proud to lead the way.
By Scott Giles
President and CEO, Vermont Student Assistance Corp.