Too few Maine students are attending and completing college, which is one reason for a shortage of skilled workers across the state.
The University of Maine System has stepped into this void with a plan to address both problems by waiving tuition for eligible Maine students at four campuses. The tuition plan begins next fall for first-year students.
Helping students minimize educational debt, coupled with supports to help them complete their degree within four years, removes hurdles that too often prevent students from finishing their college education. If this plan is successful — measured by an increase in graduates, especially those who stay in Maine to work — it should be expanded to other universities in the system.
While a growing number of Maine students are starting college, too few of them are finishing. About a third of students at the University of Maine in Orono complete their degree in four years; 56 percent do so within six years, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Both are similar to the national average. Only 30 percent of students at the University of Maine at Presque Isle complete a bachelor’s degree within six years.
Many of the students who don’t earn a degree still accumulate substantial student debt.
Four campuses — Presque Isle, Fort Kent, Machias and Augusta — will cover the remaining cost of tuition for all Pell eligible Maine students who commit to taking enough credit hours to graduate within four years and maintain a 2.0 grade point average or better. Pell grants, which are available to students from low- to moderate-income families, are capped at $5,920 this academic year. Many students turn to loans to close the gap between their Pell grant and a college’s tuition. The no-tuition offer is available to qualified part-time students at the University of Maine at Augusta, which offers courses at two campuses, eight centers and online.
Eliminating the tuition payments not covered by Pell grants can reduce students’ college debt by more than $14,000, removing a large burden on new graduates. Coupled with internships and other programs that expose students to job opportunities in the campuses’ communities, one goal is to encourage more students to remain in Maine — better yet, rural Maine — to begin their careers.
“The demographic deck is stacked against us in Maine, so we must think differently and act decisively to overcome the wave of retirements facing our industries and communities while students continue to struggle to afford the college degree many of those positions will require,” Jim Erwin, chair of the University of Maine System board of trustees, said in a statement. “These campus programs represent exactly the kind of focus we need on innovation, debt reduction, and workforce to achieve two of our highest priorities: student success and economic development.”
The initiative began at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, where 46 percent of students are eligible for Pell grants. The campus has also launched a push to stress the importance of finishing a four-year degree in four years. Called Finish in 4, the campaign stresses the importance of taking a full course load each semester to complete college in four years. Every extra year of college can cost $50,000, between the lost salary and continued college expenses.
Academic maps for each degree the campus offers detail what courses students should take each semester to complete their education within four years. Student progress is also closely monitored to catch when students are struggling with a course. Help, along with academic and professional advising and tutoring, is offered to ensure they don’t fall behind.
These supports, which offer students structure and direction, can be as important as the new no-tuition plan in ensuring students complete their degrees.
The university system is right to make degree attainment a priority and removing a big financial hurdle can be a big help in educating the next generation of workers, who are sorely needed to fill the state’s dangerous workforce gap.