June 20, 2018
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Surviving college: Three ways to help Maine students graduate

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Members of the class of 2014 during the 112th commencement ceremony at the University of Maine in Orono in May.


Educate Maine put the state’s educational performance in perspective in a 2013 report: Of every 100 students entering ninth grade, about 85 will graduate from high school. Of those graduating seniors, 54 will enter a four- or two-year college program. And of those students who enroll in college, only 32 will graduate.

Economic success lies in the quality of the workforce. But if Maine is going to encourage more people to go to college, it must ensure their transitions are much more successful.

No one gains anything when people start college, acquire debt, and then drop out. The state’s economy depends on the ability of residents to complete their degree.

Organizations, colleges and universities offer an array of support services to try to prevent attrition. Many are aimed at boosting preparation for college-level work and providing financial assistance — the two most common factors affecting student decisions to withdraw, according to a 2010 survey of chief academic officers at 600 four-year public colleges and universities.

What resources are available in Maine to help students overcome the challenges that arise? Here are three initiatives that students should know about and policymakers should build on:

Maine State Grant Program

The Maine State Grant Program offers a small grant amount to undergraduate students based on financial need. Students don’t have to apply directly for it. A Maine resident who files the FAFSA by May 1 is automatically considered for a maximum grant of $1,000 per year.

It’s a well-targeted program administered by the Finance Authority of Maine; and payment is made directly to the student’s university. But while having some grant money for undergraduates is better than none, $1,000 does not stretch very far.

The program’s impact could be enhanced with more funding, which would require legislative action.

A special commission is set to study college affordability and completion, and it should seriously examine increasing the Maine State Grant award. Over the last 10 years, program funding has been cut 20 percent, according to FAME, while college and living costs have only grown. The program currently receives a state appropriation of about $9 million annually to fund 14,000 Maine students who most need financial assistance.

Support Early Success in College grant program

The Support Early Success in College program is an initiative of the MELMAC Education Foundation. Since 2005 it has awarded $4.4 million in competitive grant awards to four community colleges, nine public universities and six private colleges for their individual retention programs.

Each higher education institution uses the money in slightly different ways, depending on their needs. The University of Maine at Farmington, for instance, started a “ supplemental instruction” program where selected student tutors attend historically challenging courses and provide regular academic help to their fellow students before problems arise. It’s had an effect: Students who go to more than 10 percent of the tutoring sessions have shown academic improvement — a key factor in retention.

Other colleges seeking to improve or expand upon their retention programs should look to the initiatives that flourished under the assistance of the Support Early Success in College program.

SALT financial literacy program

The SALT program was created by the nonprofit American Student Assistance and is administered in Maine by FAME. It is offered at all Maine universities and community colleges — and Beal College, Husson University, New England School Of Communications, Thomas College, Northeast Technical Institute and Saint Joseph’s College of Maine — for free.

When students register, the organization has access to students’ loan data, so they can receive individualized advice about managing their finances and debt.

Students are automatically enrolled and can receive one-on-one counseling from student loan experts; track all their loans in one place and compare different options for payment; and receive direct help to resolve often-complicated student-loan problems. By helping students avoid financial pitfalls and learn early how to manage their money and loans, they are more likely to complete their degree.


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