How can low-income Maine residents living at or near the poverty line escape the trap that limits them to low-skill, low-wage jobs? Education — and the resulting degree or professional credential — is an indispensable part of the answer.
That’s why we welcome news that an opportunity for low-income residents to improve their job prospects in high-demand fields by pursuing a college degree or professional credential is coming back online. Later this month, the Maine Department of Labor will start accepting applications for the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program, which offers low-income Mainers financial assistance to cover tuition and other expenses involved with pursuing a degree or credential in a high-demand field.
The labor department accepted no applications last year while it rewrote program rules. The six-year-old program has shown some positive results, and the labor department’s new rules set the program up for increased enrollment and a higher completion rate.
The Competitive Skills Scholarship Program is one of a number of employment training programs offered by states across the country and funded through unemployment insurance payroll taxes. Such training programs don’t only offer participants the benefit of upgraded skills and improved employability. The states that offer them see a return on investment in the form of reduced demand for unemployment insurance and new tax revenue from newly trained workers with higher-paying jobs.
In its six-year history, the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program has spent $7,658 per participant on average. The scholarship program, meanwhile, hasn’t come close to meeting demand: In the program’s first five years, it has been able to accept just 17 percent of qualified applicants. And of the 499 participants who exited the program between 2008 and 2012, only 39 percent left with a credential. Those who didn’t still spent, on average, nearly two years in the program.
The new rules are designed to reduce per-enrollee spending by about 25 percent, according to the Department of Labor, freeing up funds for additional participants.
For some, a few of the changes could make pursuing a degree more difficult: Reimbursement for transportation will be limited to 250 miles per week, for example, and stipends to cover general expenses won’t be available to part-time enrollees. Overall, though, the labor department’s new rules offer the state a chance to maximize its resources and expand enrollment in a popular program that could become more effective. The Department of Labor hopes to have 400 people enrolled by November, up from the 185 participating.
One important change the department has made to the scholarship program is to shorten the time period in which participants are allowed to complete degrees. That’s a move that can boost degree completion: By and large, students’ likelihood of completing a degree decreases the longer they spend pursuing it, and the prospect of no more scholarship aid after a certain amount of time can act as a completion incentive.
Participants will have six years to complete a four-year degree, down from eight years; three years for a two-year degree, down from four; and 18 months to complete a one-year certificate program, down from two years.
The Competitive Skills Scholarship Program has produced some positive results that show it’s a program worth improving. Participants who earned credentials nearly doubled their earnings in the year after completing the program compared with the year before they started it, according to the program’s 2013 annual report. Incomes for those who left the program without a credential rose by only a quarter.
In making changes, the Maine Department of Labor listened to feedback it received from the public and took those comments into account in crafting the final rules. As originally proposed, the department would have made the new rules retroactive to participants. The department wisely struck that provision in response to public comments. Rather than drop coverage in most instances for computer expenses, as originally proposed, the final rules allow coverage for one-time upgrades or computer purchases. Rather than cover 80 percent of child care expenses, the final rules provide for 100 percent coverage.
If Maine can craft a job skills scholarship program that can serve more people and serve them more effectively, it’s not only the scholarship recipients who stand to gain.