BANGOR, Maine — The percentage of Maine high school graduates enrolling in college has increased, but economically disadvantaged students are enrolling at much lower rates than students who are more well-off, according to data released by the Mitchell Institute, a research and scholarship nonprofit organization.
Of the 13,171 students who graduated high school in Maine in 2013, 62.1 percent enrolled in college, compared with 56.9 percent of 2006 graduates.
The rate of Maine students enrolling in college who do not qualify for free or reduced-price lunch has been steadily increasing since 2008, from 66 percent to 72 percent. But students who qualify for the program — meaning their family’s income is at or below the federal poverty level — have not shown such gains, increasing in the rate at which they enroll in college from 45 percent to just 48 percent.
“It probably has to do with the economics of college,” Lisa Plimpton, the research director at the Mitchell Institute, said. “Among our Mitchell scholars, we’ve seen a rapid and large growth in unmet aid for college.”
The Mitchell Institute, founded by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, awards a scholarship each year to one graduate from each of Maine’s 140 high schools. The nonprofit works with the Maine Department of Education and the National Student Clearinghouse to release data each year about college enrollment and degree attainment rates in Maine. This is the first year the groups have included data on the economic status and demographic characteristics of students in their report.
Plimpton said the more detailed information about Maine students allows the Mitchell Institute to see which demographic groups Maine’s education systems are serving well and which are falling behind.
“While the number of graduates has been going down, the number of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch has been going up a lot,” she said. “Economically disadvantaged students are less likely to meet the academic standards, and they’re less likely to graduate from high school,” which means they also are likely not to go to college.
The percentage of students who enroll in college then progress to their sophomore year has remained stagnant in Maine in recent years, an issue politicians have drawn attention to this year.
Of the students who graduated from high school in 2011 and enrolled in college, 83.3 percent continued to their sophomore year. That portion has stayed fairly consistent over the past six years.
The portion of students who complete their degrees has increased, however. More than 55 percent of students who graduated from high school in 2007 have completed a post-secondary degree, up more than three percentage points from students who graduated during the previous year.
The data showed there is still great disparity among geographic regions in Maine when it comes to college enrollment and degree attainment. For example, while more than 88 percent of Cumberland County students who enrolled in college and progressed to a second year, only about 78 percent of those from Aroostook County did.
Plimpton said Maine is above national averages when it comes to high school graduation and college enrollment rates. However, Maine’s rate drops down to match the national average when it comes to college completion, she said.
“Our dropout problem in Maine is just a little later on,” she said.