WATERVILLE, Maine — In hopes of courting more specialists in science, technology, engineering and math to Maine, the Harold Alfond Foundation is rolling out a new grant program to help them pay off college debts.
With an initial investment of $5.5 million, the Alfond Leaders competitive grant program will give about 150 recipients up to $60,000 in college debt relief per person over the next three years, the foundation announced Tuesday. The grants will be administered by the Finance Authority of Maine.
The grants are open to Maine residents or people who expect to move to Maine after being hired by a company here. Applicants must have outstanding student loan debt and a higher education degree or certificate. They also must be employed or have employment lined up in a STEM role at a Maine-based company.
The new program is aimed at attracting qualified employees for the jobs that that state forecasters and business leaders say are increasingly needed in Maine. Dwindling birthrates and growing retirements, coupled with a flow of young graduates out of the state, are exacerbating the problem, according to foundation Chairman Greg Powell.
“Our bench is shrinking,” he said at the Waterville press conference.
A series of statewide reports released in recent years indicate that one-in-seven new Maine jobs created over the next decade will be in STEM fields, and that those jobs will pay 58 percent better than other fields of work in the state. Nationally, STEM jobs are projected to grow by 22 percent by the end of the decade, according to the U.S. Department Of Education.
Meanwhile, student debt can be crippling, preventing a person from buying a home, starting a family, or living where they’d like, Powell said. Hefty debt payments can force many graduates to seek higher paying jobs outside of Maine, where STEM workers are sorely needed, he argued.
“Harold Alfond believed having access to credit was a great thing as long as you never used it,” Powell said.“He used to say debt was like weight — easy to put on but very hard to take off.”
About 64 percent of Maine’s college graduates leave school with debt — an average of about $31,000 per student, which is the seventh-highest rate of debt in the nation, according to the Institute of College Access and Success.
Those chosen for a grant will have portions of their debt paid off in two disbursements, one after five years of employment and the next after 10.
FAME and the Alfond Foundation have partnered in the past on student debt issues, rolling out a program to help students consolidate and refinance their debts.
In a recorded message played at Tuesday’s announcement, Maine Gov. Paul LePage said drawing people into Maine’s STEM industries “critical for Maine’s future economy and generation.”
“This new program ensures we have an educated workforce, good jobs and reduced student debt,” LePage added.
The first application cycle started with the launch of the program’s website, alfondleaders.org, on Tuesday. Applications will be accepted through May 15, after which the first group of applicants will be vetted and first recipients selected. The second application cycle will open in the fall, according to Martha Johnston, FAME’s director of education.
Johnston said that after this three-year trial run, FAME would hope to receive financing from other groups to keep the program going into the future. The grants could stretch into other areas where Maine is seeing a shortage in the workforce, such as nursing. The state recently released a study indicating it would need 3,200 new nurses to fill its ranks by 2025.
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