Let’s help Maine’s adult students finish their degrees

Lincoln artist David Whalen teaches a Penobscot Valley Senior College class in watercolor painting at Eastport Hall on the University of Maine at Augusta-Bangor campus on Friday, March 8, 2013.
Lincoln artist David Whalen teaches a Penobscot Valley Senior College class in watercolor painting at Eastport Hall on the University of Maine at Augusta-Bangor campus on Friday, March 8, 2013. Buy Photo
Posted July 31, 2013, at 1:07 p.m.
Last modified July 31, 2013, at 4:06 p.m.

Mary is 42. She graduated from high school in 1989, went to college for a couple of years, but left after a family crisis required her to return home. Mary never returned to school, working part-time jobs over the years as she raised her kids. With those kids now grown, she is looking to get back into the workplace full time, but has been frustrated that most available good jobs require a college education.

John is 29. He graduated high school in 2002 and enrolled in college out of state. By John’s own admission, he was not ready for college as an 18-year-old, and after a semester of little studying and low grades, his parents pulled the financial plug. John has worked mostly full time since then, but never in a satisfying or financially rewarding job. He is ready for a change.

Do these stories sound familiar? They should, as stories like these — of people who have some college credits, but not a degree — are shared by about one in seven Mainers. Perhaps it is your own story. Almost certainly, it is a story of someone you know.

It is estimated that about 200,000 Maine residents have attended college in the past but have no degree to show for it. Providing them now with a simple path back to college has become a high priority of the University of Maine System not only because it would benefit our universities, but far more importantly because it would greatly benefit our state and most especially the people themselves.

The simple truth is that Maine would grow and prosper from equipping our adults with the skills and education that a bachelor’s degree brings. The best jobs available across our state require a bachelor’s degree, and as some of our largest businesses will tell you, they are shipping great jobs to other states because Maine doesn’t have enough people with the skill sets and degrees to fill them.

Because helping adults return to college is a win-win-win for our state, our universities and our residents, University of Maine System Chancellor James Page asked me six months ago to head up a special task force to develop a plan to help bring back to college as many of those 200,000 adults as possible.

I was asked to join this task force because my own university, the University of Maine at Augusta, already understands the adult student population well. On UMA’s Augusta and Bangor campuses, a majority of our students are older than the traditional college student. Moreover, UMA is a leader in distance education, making strong use of nine University College centers across the state and offering many of our programs entirely online.

UMA, however, is hardly the only school in the University of Maine System that does a great job working with adults, and all seven public universities are poised to do even more.

And we must do more. Adults returning to college have their own unique set of pressures and constraints: They have family responsibilities, they often need to hold down a job while attending school, they have little or no flexibility to relocate, there is often little disposable income to pay for tuition, and they often bring with them the fear of having not been in a classroom in years or even decades.

These realities require universities to offer flexible schedules and opportunities to take classes close to home or right in the home through online options. They require a student support system focused on the unique needs of adults, with easy transfer of college credits already earned, and the ability to earn credit for prior life and work experiences. For example, many of our military veterans have top-notch training that may be transferred into college credit.

And finally, adult students also require financial assistance to defray the expense of attending college. Even our lower public tuition rates can be a major barrier for some adult students who also are balancing expenses related to their homes and families.

I am pleased that we already are addressing many of these issues and that so many adult learners already are flourishing at our public universities. I am even more excited about Chancellor Page and the university system trustees’ commitment to implementing our plan for enhanced online learning options, increased scholarship and tuition support for adults, and strengthening our student support system for adult learners.

You will be hearing more about the University of Maine System’s plans in the coming months, because for those 200,000 Mainers, their stories are still being written. It is our job to help each of them write their own best ending.

Allyson Hughes Handley is president of the University of Maine at Augusta, which includes a campus in Bangor.

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