LACONIA — Homemade chocolate, strawberry and vanilla cakes are Victoria Abate’s hobby, as well as her favorite school project. But it was her pumpkin cakes that whet the most appetites at last fall’s Pumpkinfest, earning the festival's honor of “Most Creative Dessert.”

Next month, Abate, 17, will collect another prize – one that comes with a reward that pays dividends into the future:  She’ll be one of the first 12 students statewide to matriculate at New Hampshire Career Academy, a pilot program designed by the state’s Department of Education in 2019 that will enable the rising senior to graduate in two years with a high school diploma and a two-year associate’s degree for free. She'll also have a guaranteed job interview, without having to sift through listings online with the hope of snagging the right match.

Starting at the end of August, Abate will study culinary arts at Lakes Region Community College – a pursuit that matches her passion, nurtured during sophomore and junior year at the Huot Technical Education Center, but planted when she was a toddler.

“I’ve always had an interest in baking since I was two years old, and my father taught me how to bake cookies," Abate said. "I’ve had this interest since I was able to stand up. It’s kind of a stress release for me, and it’s a good way to be creative.”

At a time when families across the country are scrambling to pay the eye-popping costs of higher education – and questioning whether a college degree is truly worth the price of amassing student loans than can take decades to repay – the New Hampshire Career Academy, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, may provide an alternative bridge to a practical livelihood while sidestepping most of the costs. It's also funded at no extra price to taxpayers.

The program, administered through North Country Charter Academy in Littleton and Lancaster, uses state education money budgeted for charter schools to cover the costs of two-year community college enrollment for eligible high school seniors, who officially transfer their high school enrollment to the charter school during their senior year. Books and supplies are paid for by NH employers in related industries, who are seeking well-trained starting employees. 

Students apply to programs at any of the state’s community colleges, and afterward go directly to work, pursue further training, or transfer to a four-year college – skipping the hefty bills of freshman and sophomore years. With the total yearly cost of private colleges floating between $60,000 and $70,000, and annual in-state tuition room and board hovering at $30,000 a year at the University of New Hampshire, taking advantage of a cost-free two year degree is a recipe for financial freedom.

"We've been saving for college since they were infants," said Margaret Spires of Salem, the mother of twin sons who will be studying finance and accounting and engineering technology at Great Bay Community College and NHTI in Concord through the academy. "If they can do this program and transfer to a four-year college, and come out of it with no debt, that would be fantastic."

The culinary program will connect Abate with waiting job opportunities upon graduation, and help her discover whether baking is a lifetime calling, and if working in a bakery is a good fit.

 “My parents thought it was a great opportunity for me to take a college experience in baking a year early,” said Abate, an honor student at Laconia High. “If you don’t have basic skills in English and math, it’s going to be a struggle in culinary,” she said. Abate also considered studying writing before the option of becoming a professional baker arose. Her instructor at Huot encouraged her “because I had so much fun doing it." She applied to the NH Career Academy at the end of her junior year.

“I wanted to perfect my skills in baking and create more desserts, and learn more professional skills. I’m not sure if there’s an internship, but that would be cool to experience,” she said. “If I don’t have an interest in working in a bakery, I could find out in an easier way.”

This year's other participants will be studying criminal justice, finance and accounting, cyber security, robotics and advanced manufacturing, mechanical engineering and engineering technology. One is studying to be a medical lab technician.

On the radar

Workforce development is on the radar for employers in industries across the state. Before COVID-19 hit full-force in mid-March and prompted a cascade of furloughs and layoffs, New Hampshire’s unemployment rate was hovering at 2.7 percent, among the lowest in the nation. As businesses reopen and cater to reawakened consumer demand, many may face their pre-pandemic predicament:  having more job openings than qualified applicants to fill them.

The state’s 30 high school career and technical education centers and seven community colleges – with five allied locations – remain a source of entry-level employees with practical skills.  The Career Academy takes job prep one step further by shaving a year off a two-year college degree.

According to data collected by the New Hampshire Department of Education, statewide enrollment in high school career and technical education programs is climbing slowly, even though high school enrollment is waning because of age and demographic shifts. The main reason for a significant uptick between 2015 and 2019 is that high school tech and career ed programs, traditionally reserved for the last two years of high school, could begin sophomore year, freeing students to pursue advanced or college-level training sooner.

State educators say it gives students career exposure and skill building earlier. It also sparks enthusiasm that can be sustained, creating a clearer path to independence that also fills niches in the state’s job market.

“Career and technical education has definitely moved into the 21st century,” said Eric Frauwirth, administrator of the NH Department of Education’s Bureau of Career Development. “Most of the programs are started at the local school level based on local need, to produce potential employees for industries that are needed throughout the state.”

That includes regionally-strong categories such as manufacturing, engineering and biotech, and universal options in fields like health care, where demand is ongoing and expanding.

Starting earlier

Middle school is emerging as an optimal time for school counselors to expose students to career options that synch with their interests and talents, through career fairs and in-school presentations by local employers.

Partnerships between high schools and community colleges have grown, taking multiple forms: community college courses taught at high schools by qualified high school teachers; online college courses available to high school students; and early enrollment college programs where high school students take classes on campus with college students.  At Lakes Region Community College, high school enrollment more than doubled in online E-Start classes, and Early College enrollment jumped by 58 percent in 2019-20 from the prior academic year. For high school students, these programs offer a substantial savings over the cost of matriculating later as a full-time or part-time college student.

Any high school student in New Hampshire can apply to take courses at any of the state’s community colleges, regardless of where they live, provided they have daily transportation or a local place to stay.

Starting this September, SB 276, which passed two years ago, will require all ninth graders to complete some type of career assessment through their high school – which will enable them to schedule classes in a way that makes strategic sense, Frauwirth said.

Practical terms

 It also prepares parents to think in practical terms. “There is still a stigma around career and technical education that it’s for those other kids, not mine,” Frauwirth said. “We like to say it’s CTE ‘and’ – not CTE ‘or’.  You can do this and go on to college.  It’s not an either-or proposition.”

Currently, students who complete a CTE program at a NH high school can receive at least eight college credits at Keene State College through an agreement between Keene State and the state’s CTE programs. In addition, STEM grants from the state of New Hampshire will pay for New Hampshire high school students to take up to two community college courses in science, technology, engineering or math without any cost to their families.

“Part of this is making sure there are options for everyone, to make sure we provide adequate education for everyone,” Frauwirth said. “With the cost of post-secondary education skyrocketing, we’re partnering with the community college system” to ratchet down family costs.

"New Hampshire Career Academy is a new, innovative path to education and careers," said Gov. Chris Sununu. "It shows what's possible when we're willing to step outside the status quo."

“Our goal is we’d like our students to stay in New Hampshire and work. Ask any industry or manufacturer in New Hampshire, they have far more openings than they have applicants,” Frauwirth said. “The general status is our students are leaving. If we can get them set up with a good paying job that they’re comfortable with, they’ll stay here. Why would you go?”

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