June 17, 2018
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Maine can make education-to-work program work

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
People use computers at the state Department of Labor's Career Center in Bangor recently.

You may not have heard of it, but the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program is Maine’s largest, most comprehensive state program helping low-income adults further their education, so they can get a job in a high-growth field.

The program aims to do what the research makes clear: If you further your education — whether at a four-year college, certificate training course or apprenticeship program — you’re better able to get a well-paying job to lift you above the poverty line. The program, managed by regional career centers, only awards funding for training to those who show a job in their field exists within their commuting area — or to those who are willing to move to another area of Maine where the work is available.

Like most programs, however, it can be improved. It can reduce administrative costs, enroll more people, reduce the dropout rate, expand the scope of training opportunities, track where enrollees end up and find better ways to calculate return on investment.

Luckily, the Maine Department of Labor, under the LePage administration, has proposed new rules that push the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program in the direction of greater efficiency and accountability. There will be a public hearing on the proposed changes Dec. 4 at the department in Augusta, with the public comment period closing Dec. 16. We urge support for the overhaul, as it will enhance the program’s credibility, and therefore its viability, to help lift more people out of poverty.

The program, established in 2007, so far hasn’t gone far enough. Between 2008 and 2012, it accepted just 17 percent of eligible applicants — 851 individuals out of 5,148. About 69 percent were unemployed.

At the same time, it spent too much on each enrollee, with an average cost per participant of $7,658. About 8 percent of expenses went to administration; 27 percent were for training; and the bulk, at 65 percent, went to participants’ support services such as their transportation, car repair, child care, computer needs, eye care and dental care.

While it makes sense to provide funds for support services — as there’s no reason to help pay tuition when a student can’t get to campus — we wholeheartedly agree the benefits are overly generous. Instead of having an unlimited transportation reimbursement, the new rules would limit the reimbursement to 250 miles or $110 per week. Instead of $600 for a computer, the program would not provide any funds unless the computer is required by the course.

These changes and others would reduce the amount spent on each individual by about 25 percent, said Joan Dolan, director of apprenticeship and strategic partnerships at the Bureau of Employment Services. That would give the department about $1 million more to boost the number of enrollees. Streamlining benefits would also reduce administrative work for case managers.

While some point out that the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program’s rate of completion, at 58 percent, is higher than the University of Maine System’s graduation rate of about 38.5 percent, it’s still too low. The problem, though, is that the labor department doesn’t have a good way to track the reasons why people drop out. Some leave because they find employment that raises their income and makes them ineligible for the program — inaccurately signaling the program didn’t fulfill its mission. Others pursue more education, not work. Some leave for family care and personal reasons.

So the department proposes to shorten the time period in which participants are allowed to get degrees, which research shows increases the probability people will complete their schooling. It wants to allow participants to remain in the program if their income increases slightly.

It is also planning to launch a new data collection system within six to 12 months to help determine why some participants leave early. It wants to survey past participants to follow up on where they are now. And it would like to better track outcomes, such as by examining participants’ earnings before and after their training, said David Klein, division director for the Bureau of Employment Services.

Mainers, and especially employers, should want this program to work well. That’s because it’s funded with 1.9 percent of the employer-paid unemployment tax.

It’s funded in this way to increase Maine residents’ employability, so they don’t need to tap into the unemployment pool. Contrary to what some may think, eliminating the scholarship fund won’t lower employers’ taxes. The tax stays steady regardless of whether the scholarship fund exists.

Maine has struggled over the years to increase workers’ employability in a way that prepares them for available jobs. Here is a program trying to improve how the state accomplishes that task. Eventually, if Maine does its job right, it won’t need the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program at all.

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