BANGOR, Maine — Close on the heels of a report that ranked Maine colleges among the least affordable in the nation, a pair of agencies released a list of strategies to address the problem.
The brief comes a month after the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education released its College Affordability Diagnosis report, which ranked Maine 42nd in the nation for college affordability.
Educate Maine and the Maine chamber outlined several ways state policymakers and families can start to ease the financial pain associated with attending college.
— Make debt easier to handle by encouraging Maine families to start saving for college early. Putting $50 per month into a Next Gen savings account starting when a child is born could accumulate nearly $17,000 by the time that student goes to college. The report also recommends students look into income-based repayment programs and that the state expand debt forgiveness programs.
— Maintain consistent state support for higher education. In 1968, 18 percent of the state’s general fund was directed toward public higher education. By 2014, that plummeted to 9 percent. As a result, more of those costs have been passed on to students and their families, the report argues.
— Improve college completion rates. Less than half of students in Maine public colleges graduate on time. Many of them never end up finishing. They accumulate debt but don’t earn a degree which could help improve their earnings. If the state and its institutions can provide financial incentives for completion and expand early college opportunities, more students could end up with a diploma in hand. It’s also important to improve advising to ensure students — especially first-generation ones — don’t get lost in the shuffle.
— Improve education for students and parents about college financing.
— Establish back-up emergency financial assistance for at-risk students. Helping students who suffer hardships or a financial crisis attain a degree can be key to helping them succeed in the future.
“Our economy requires that more people have some kind of education beyond high school,” Ed Cervone, Educate Maine’s executive director, said. “Making postsecondary education affordable for Maine people will lead to good jobs, career pathways and economic growth.”
Near the bottom?
The Penn report looks at the cost of attending public two-year community colleges, public four-year universities, public research institutions and private four-year universities and calculates the percentage of family income required to attend those institutions full time.
Here are several takeaways:
— Maine finished near the bottom of the national rankings but ahead of Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. As a region, New England reflected poorly in the report, with only Connecticut appearing in the top 25. Pennsylvania, home to the university institute that created the report, was named the second-least affordable state for higher education, beating only New Hampshire.
— In 2013, it took 23 percent of the average family’s income for a student to attend a two-year college full time, 33 percent to attend a four-year public institution and 38 percent to attend private four-year schools. In each of those categories, the percentages were an increase from 2008.
It’s also important to note the challenges Maine faces in rankings like these. Maine’s median household income is the lowest in the region, meaning college costs take a larger portion of family income, even if tuition rates are low compared with other states.
Educate Maine and the chamber’s college affordability report added a few more things to be concerned about:
— Maine students who graduated in 2014 were on average $31,000 in debt because of their education. That’s the sixth-highest debt among students in the country.
— About 68 percent of Maine students rely on loans to finish school, the eighth-highest rate in the nation.
— After graduation, students have to pay off their debt while earning pay that is among the lowest in the nation, according to the report.
Problems in the Penn report
It’s important to note there are several omissions and oversights in the Penn report that could skew results.
First, the report states, “More than a third of Maine’s undergraduates attend the state’s community colleges, which are among the most expensive in the nation.”
However, the report lists the University of Maine at Augusta, one of seven UMS campuses of the University of Maine System, in the same category as the state’s community colleges. UMA’s tuition, however, is about $6,500 for an in-state student, more than double the $2,700 per year paid by an in-state student at one of Maine’s community colleges, apparently skewing the community college data.
The report also claims Maine doesn’t provide any need-based student aid and uses that as a factor in its rankings. The report fails to mention multiple programs that have been rolled out over the years in an attempt to help students reduce their debt burden.
For example, there’s FAME’s Maine State Grant Program, a need-based scholarship that awards up to $1,500 for eligible students. There’s also Opportunity Maine tax credits for Mainers who graduate from college and end up living, working and paying taxes in Maine, and the Finance Authority of Maine’s loan forgiveness programs for people who pursue jobs in fields that are in high demand in certain parts of the state — dentistry, medicine, criminal justice, etc.
Even if the rankings aren’t entirely accurate, university and community college system officials say they don’t take the issue of affordability lightly.
Some improvement efforts are already underway. Both the state’s public university and community college systems have stressed the importance of improving retention and completion rates and providing students with quality advising to ensure they don’t fall through the cracks.
“We are working across the seven community colleges to address issues of affordability by, among other things, helping students reduce their time to completion through more full-time enrollment, enabling them to earn college credits while still in high school, building more on-campus employment and adopting a number of strategies to reduce the need for remediation,” Helen Pelletier, spokeswoman for the Maine Community College System, said.
University of Maine System officials have echoed many of the same efforts, and increased collaboration with community colleges to allow students to more seamlessly transition between universities and community colleges.
UMS also has frozen tuition for an unprecedented sixth straight year, at a time when tuition costs across the nation’s public university systems have been increasing. As a result, UMS is the only public, four-year university system in the nation to see a reduction in its inflation-adjusted tuition rate over the past five years.
Cervone said many of the policy ideas stemmed directly from conversations with higher education officials.
The proposals for reducing the burden of education costs on Maine families outlined by Educate Maine and the chamber aren’t farfetched or untested, he added.
“What would be groundbreaking is if we got together and made these changes,” he said. “No one group or entity in the state can get this done.”
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.