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(HOST) In his State-of-the-State address, Governor James Douglas proposed an expansive new program of college scholarships. Commentator Allen Gilbert says that hard questions need to be asked about the plan.

(GILBERT) Governor James Douglas’s plan for “Promise Scholarships” for Vermont college students sounds like a sure winner. Newspaper editorial writers like the idea. University of Vermont President Daniel Fogel and others have praised Douglas’s “vision.”

The purpose of the scholarships is to keep students in Vermont, once they graduate from college. If students who receive the scholarships leave, they’ll have to pay back some – but not all – of the money.

Scratch the surface of this idea, though, and you find some major issues. Some of these issues go back decades.

Higher education is big business – very big business. Vermont colleges and universities employ thousands, and cycle millions of dollars into the state’s economy. But to pump these dollars into the economy, schools need revenue. To produce revenue, schools need students who bring with them cash, borrowed dollars in the form of student loans, or scholarships.

Much is made of the fact that Vermont provides little direct support to UVM or the state colleges system. But there’s a reason for that. In the 1960s, Vermont decided it would provide scholarship dollars based on a student’s need. Students could use this money to attend any school – in-state or out-of-state, public or private. The state wanted to empower students – particularly low-income students – and give them the chance to choose whichever college seemed best.

Many Vermont students who receive need-based grants from the state do attend UVM, VSC schools, or other Vermont colleges. For students who take their grants out of state, many attend schools just over the Vermont border, in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, or New York. For these students, an out-of-state school may actually be closer to their home than UVM or a VSC school.

But if you’re UVM or VSC, you see a good chunk of the state’s scholarship dollars going elsewhere. With tight budgets – and, in the case of UVM, big expansion plans – you need to capture more state dollars.

Enter “Promise Scholarships.” Wrapped with the ribbon of keeping Vermont kids in Vermont to stem a “brain drain,” the program seems attractive. But it would be a fundamental departure from empowering kids to make college choices, and from awarding state grants based on need.

It’s true that many Vermont high school grads leave Vermont for college. But it’s also true that “brain drain” is offset by “brain gain.” Many more students come to Vermont for college than leave. A good chunk of these out-of-staters stay once they graduate. Governor Jim Douglas himself is an example of this phenomenon.

Legislators should ask hard questions about “Promise Scholarships.” The program represents a major shift in the state’s higher education policy. And if legislators do commit substantial new money, they might ask for greater accountability in how funds are used. Perhaps something like the No Child Left Behind Act should be extended to colleges and universities, as federal Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has suggested. That would hold higher education to the same standards as elementary and secondary schools.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.

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