ORONO, Maine — Bangor High School senior Mariah Smith, 17, is on track to graduate next spring with a year’s worth of college credits under her belt. The Glenburn resident is part of the Bridge Year Program, an initiative that is attempting to increase the number of Maine students who earn a college degree by giving them access to college classes during their junior and senior years in high school.
“I feel a lot of people get lost when they are moving through that transition,” Smith said of the move from high school to college.
“I watched [my sister] go through that, and I was not looking forward to it,” she said. “It was really complicated, with all the application processes, deciding on your future. You come out of high school and you have to pick your entire future.”
As a high school junior in Bridge Year Program, Smith took University of Maine classes in the morning at Bangor High School with a cohort of 10 other students from her school. In the afternoon, the group went to the United Technology Center to learn practical skills, such as resume writing or EMT training, and explored professional opportunities by visiting local businesses.
Smith’s teachers officially became adjunct professors at UMaine, working with professors at the university to deliver their classes over the course of a high school year, instead of one semester. The students earn college credits that can be transferred to other colleges from teachers they know, in a familiar setting.
Bangor High School teacher Geoff Wingard, who taught the students history, said he met with the UMaine professor whose class he was delivering prior to the start of the semester, then checked in at least monthly throughout the year.
Smith said that, though the work was hard, being in a small class in a familiar environment made college seem much more doable. She plans to attend Eastern Maine Community College to earn her radiology technician certificate after she graduates.
The two-year bridge program was unveiled by Gov. Paul LePage in 2012 and piloted at Hermon High School. Bangor High School was added to the program last year. The program will expand to six more schools next year. The first 12 students to complete the program graduated from Hermon this spring, and all will be attending college, having already completed a number of general requirements students typically take during their freshman year. They will pursue degrees in nursing, the culinary arts, carpentry, business, electrical engineering and other areas, according to their guidance counselor.
The schools that will add the program next year are Ellsworth High School, Houlton High School, Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro, Waterville High School, Brewer High School and Hampden Academy.
One of the biggest draws of the program is the dramatic discount on university courses that these students benefit from.
The high school students pay $45 dollars per credit for their UMaine courses, compared with the $279 per credit hour in-state undergraduates pay. Several Bridge Year students will take courses from the University of Maine at Augusta during the next school year, for which they will pay $35, compared with $217.
In a state that has particularly high rates of student debt, the savings is huge, students said. Maine students graduate with an average of $29,351 worth of debt, the seventh highest rate in the country, according to a report by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for College Access and Success.
The Bridge Year students will not only take eight classes at the lower rate, they will also likely reduce the amount of time needed to earn their degrees by a year.
That is not the only goal of the program, according to Fred Woodman, the director of UTC and one of the program’s organizers. The other is to increase the number of students in Maine completing their degrees.
Only 39 percent of the students in Maine who graduated from high school in 2006 returned to college for a second year, according to the most recent data from the Mitchell Institute, though nearly 50 percent enrolled in college.
In 2012, only 38 percent of adults over age 25 in Maine had an associates degree or higher, which is about the same as the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“[Bridge Year] is aimed at the middle kid, who’s in the 25th to 50th percentile [in his or her class,” Miller said. “Probably the kid that’s going to go to college and dropout.”
Kasey Holland, 18, who’s going into his senior year at Hermon High School and is one year into the program, said, though not everything has been perfectly smooth, it is a good introduction to the college workload and expectations, which are much higher than in high school.
“I wrote an essay for UMaine. My English teacher looked at it probably a dozen times before I submitted it. I probably revised it 13 times,” he explained.
“When you’re in a place where you’ve been for two years, you’re comfortable with the instructors that know you,” he said.
Holland plans to enlist in the army after graduation, then go to college when he gets out.
College prep is another of the program’s goals, Greg Miller, an organizer, explained.
“In high school, assessments are done frequently and with notice,” he said. “In college, sometimes the first assessment comes half way through the semester. If you find out at that point that you’re failing, that could be unrecoverable.
“It’s better to start teaching college in high school as opposed to teaching high school in college,” through remediation courses, he said.
The program hasn’t worked for every student.
Bangor High School’s program lost four students during it’s first year, and Hermon High School lost five students over the course of two years, according to staff from each of the schools. Students left the program early in the year and returned to regular school, so it had no bearing on their academic standing.
“College was hard,” was something Hermon High School guidance counselor Noelle O’Clair said she heard a lot from the first set of juniors who enrolled.
“For the kids who have stuck it out, they have the sense that they can master college-level work,” Wingard said. “It’s that confidence building that’s huge.”