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To counter its aging population, Vermont offers $5,000 for recent graduates to stay on


Vermont has joined the growing list of states hoping to retain young people by paying their student loans. The program, launched this year, will give recent graduates of Vermont colleges up to $5,000 if they stay and work in the state for two years. Lawmakers hope the initiative will keep more young people in Vermont. From The Hechinger Report in Vermont Public, Liam Elder-Connors reports.

LIAM ELDER-CONNORS, BYLINE: A couple of months ago, Mohamud Diini was ready to leave Vermont. The 23-year-old had graduated from Champlain College in Burlington. He thought he'd like to move somewhere warmer and bigger, like Charlotte, N.C., or Atlanta.

MOHAMUD DIINI: I feel like I'm more a bigger city person, much more diversity. I like having options on what to do throughout the daily life, not just having to rely on hiking and swimming.

ELDER-CONNORS: Diini hoped that President Joe Biden's student loan forgiveness plan would cancel out his $20,000 of debt. But when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Biden's plan this summer, Diini knew he'd need to do something different. That's when he heard Vermont would pay him up to $5,000 if he stayed and worked. Diini, who studied business administration and accounting, got a job at a brokerage firm outside Burlington. He applied to the loan program and was accepted.

DIINI: It was better than zero, you know? It was better than me paying 5,000 out of pocket. And I'm not required to do anything but stay in the state, which is, like, bare minimum.

ELDER-CONNORS: Diini isn't the only recent grad who stayed thanks to this new program. Mimi Duong graduated this year from the University of Vermont with a degree in public communications and nearly $30,000 of debt. Duong, who grew up in Vermont, says she considered leaving the state to pursue higher-paying jobs, but an opportunity to work in her field plus the loan repayment program convinced her to stay.

MIMI DUONG: When I got the email saying that I received it, I don't - I didn't - my world, like, stopped 'cause I'm like, wow, I get to stay here, work and also have some of my loans paid back.

ELDER-CONNORS: Almost every state in the country has some kind of student loan forgiveness program. Most are focused on specific professions, like health care or teaching. Only two states, Vermont and Maine, offer loan repayment programs to recent graduates who work in any field. Both states have some of the oldest populations in the country. Maine lawmakers expanded the state's student loan repayment program last year. People can get $2,500 a year off their loans for up to a decade. Heather Johnson is Maine's commissioner of economic and community development.

HEATHER JOHNSON: So the average student debt in Maine is about 33,000. And so we had to be significant in that equation.

ELDER-CONNORS: Nearly 14,000 people took advantage of Maine's program last year. In Vermont, the first-year numbers won't be that big. There's enough money for around 400 recent grads this year. Saint Michaels College economics professor Patrick Walsh says that could still be significant, especially if the state keeps the program. He says enticing young people to stay could help address Vermont's aging population and bring more high-paying jobs to the state.

PATRICK WALSH: That could really start to move the needle. It's kind of these cycles where the skilled employers go where the skilled workers go. The skilled workers go where the skilled employers go.

ELDER-CONNORS: But it could be hard to keep people after they get their $5,000. Duong, the recent University of Vermont grad, isn't committed to staying.

DUONG: All the adults in Vermont tell me, hey, you should get out, like, at least, like, in your life. At least leave Vermont for a couple years, and then come back if you want to. I might take that advice, but we'll also see, like, you know, how deep my roots are two years from now because I might end up just loving it here.

ELDER-CONNORS: That's exactly what state officials are hoping will happen - that after two years, people like Duong will realize that Vermont is where they want to stay. For NPR News, I'm Liam Elder-Connors in Burlington, Vt.

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