Perhaps the most eye-catching element of the “Maine Made” economic development plan Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud rolled out last month as part of his gubernatorial campaign was a pitch to provide a free sophomore year of college for full-time Maine students enrolled at the state’s seven universities.
The initiative would pay any remaining student costs for tuition and fees not already covered by grant-based financial aid. That means the “free sophomore year” aid would replace loans and out-of-pocket contributions students typically need to pay the tuition bill. Michaud’s campaign estimates a $15 million annual cost, and the candidate’s “Maine Made” document discusses a need to pair the aid with academic support services, counseling and internships.
Since it came out, Michaud’s proposal has succeeded in sparking conversation about how best to alleviate the staggering debt loads of too many college graduates and how best to encourage students to stay enrolled in college and complete their degrees. Michaud is right to put emphasis on the need for better results from Maine’s university system.
However, we doubt Michaud’s free sophomore year is the most effective way to promote student retention and on-time degree completion and alleviate student debt. We also question whether the initiative would direct the resources to those who need it most.
The Michaud campaign targets sophomore year because it follows the period when students are most likely to withdraw from college — and often for financial reasons (though withdrawal for academic reasons is just as, if not more, likely). But the free sophomore year — which only full-time, Maine resident students would receive — would cover only tuition and fees as a way to limit the initiative’s cost. For the average full-time student living on a University of Maine System campus, tuition and fees represent only 41 percent of the total cost.
The vast majority of students starting out full-time at a Maine university already receive grant aid, and the average grant award already covers a considerable portion of tuition and fees. At the University of Maine at Machias, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics, the average grant award for a full-time student ($9,017) already exceeds full-time tuition and fees ($7,480). So for the average Machias student receiving aid — 98 percent of students — Michaud’s free sophomore year doesn’t help because it stops at tuition.
The free sophomore year proposal would benefit most the few Maine resident students who don’t need financial aid — running counter to its goal to help students who can’t afford their programs.
“If you focus [aid] on people who need it the most, you’re more likely to be able to make a difference for them than if you give it to everyone,” says Matthew Chingos, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.
Plus, research on student retention and degree completion points to the importance of coupling consistent financial assistance throughout one’s college career with academic support in which students are required to participate.
While Michaud’s free sophomore year is a straightforward pledge to list on campaign literature, an effective solution is more complex.
One concept the free sophomore year proposal introduces is an incentive for students to remain enrolled and to remain enrolled full-time, with the hope that that encourages on-time degree completion.
If Michaud wants to introduce such an incentive into the financial aid system and structure student aid around that idea, he could look to West Virginia for a scholarship model that’s proven to boost four-year graduation rates. The Promise Scholarship covers the cost of tuition and fees, and it renews annually only if students maintain a minimum grade point average and a nearly full-time course load.
An analysis of the program by Harvard University’s Judith Scott-Clayton concluded that four-year graduation rates for Promise scholarship recipients were a quarter higher than for those without the award. “The program’s incentives for college achievement appear central to its impacts,” Scott-Clayton wrote.
In the opening pages of “Maine Made,” Michaud says one of his aims is to start a conversation about the best ways to revitalize the state’s economy. We hope the conversation his free sophomore year proposal has sparked leads Michaud to reconsider it.