Sanders speaks at VSAC conference


Sabrina Haskell

Senator Bernie Sanders with Katie Lalley


That’s what Sen. Bernie Sanders repeatedly stressed in his keynote speech at VSAC’s College and Career Pathways day at Johnson State College on Saturday.

The event featured 15 different workshops, geared towards high school students and their families to help guide them through the process of searching for and applying to college. It was the second in a series of three events throughout the state.

Some of the more popular workshops offered included “Financial Aid and Managing College Costs,” “The Admissions Process: Step by Step,” “Writing the Admissions Essay” and “Strategies for the SAT and ACT.” But attendees could also get information on intercollegiate sports, money saving strategies and staying calm before the first year of college.

“As a state, we do reasonably well in terms of the percentage of our kids that graduate high school,” Sanders said to the crowd of 163. “We do not do well in terms of percentage of our kids who get a higher education.”

While Sanders said he’s not sure why that may be, he encouraged students to tap into the wealth of online information on what colleges do for their students and to find out what schools would work best for them and their needs.

This was addressed in the “College Search: Finding the Right Fit” workshop, where VSAC counselors Marti Kingsley and Matt Mitchell equipped students with tools like the college comparison sheet and dispelled common myths about college.

“I ended up going where I went . . . because a friend of mine went to that college. Not exactly the best way to make a college choice,” Sanders joked. “We have four kids that went to Burlington High School, and the process was really not a whole lot better.”

Declining enrollment is nothing new to Vermont. According to the Vermont State Colleges System, undergraduate enrollment has decreased almost 9 percent since 2012, though those in the crowd Saturday learned that by 2020, two-thirds of all jobs in Vermont will require some kind of education beyond high school.

One reason, Sanders said, is that guidance counselors are “often overwhelmed by family problems” and, because of that, students and parents aren’t getting the information they need about how to go through the college selection and application process.

Vermont has a staggering number of first-generation college students — 61 percent of the VSCS population, 27 percent of UVM students and 51 percent of the private college population.

Without the help of guidance counselors or parents who have been through the process themselves, the idea of college can be overwhelming. In addition, what Sanders calls the high “sticker price” often scares families away.

VSAC took steps to address those families not interested in the traditional college route by adding a career pathways component to its program.

“We were excited to see great attendance at a new strand of workshops we added this year on apprenticeships, skilled trades, certificate programs and internships that lead to great career paths and life opportunities without a college degree,” VSAC’s public outreach coordinator Anna Telensky said.

Some of these workshops included “Vermont Career Outlook,” “Apprenticeships” and “Pathways to a Great Career — Without a College Degree.” The workshops focused on apprenticeship occupations, credentials and training programs, plumbing and electrical licensing, and workforce development opportunities offered by Green Mountain Technology and Career Center.

Sanders used his keynote speech to reference a visit by German ambassador Peter Wittig. Wittig was here to meet with legislators and hosted a town hall meeting in Burlington about Germany’s apprenticeship program — one Sanders says is the best in the world.

“In a highly competitive global economy we should not force our young people to go deeply into debt for the crime of trying to get a higher education,” Sanders said to thunderous applause. “. . . Anybody here know how much it costs to go to college in Germany? Zero. Free.”

For those who missed Saturday’s event but are still interested in learning more about attending college and the financial aid process, VSAC is hosting its final College and Careers Pathway event Saturday, April 7, at Castleton University from 9 a.m. to noon.