ORONO, Maine —- Despite the ongoing national and international focus on reducing spending and the need for economic austerity, one Maine-based institute founded by a former U.S. senator has decided to do the opposite.

The Mitchell Institute, founded by Waterville native and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, has decided to spend more on students who receive Mitchell Scholarships.

On Sunday, at the University of Maine, the institute held a luncheon for the 129 students who are 2011 Mitchell Scholars, each of whom will receive $1,000 more than their predecessors.

Since 1999, the institute has given one graduating senior at each public high school in Maine $1,250 a year for each year they spend in college, with a cap of $5,000. This past spring, however, the institute’s board of directors decided to increase that amount to $1,500 a year, with a cap of $6,000 per student.

Mitchell, who posed for a photograph with each scholarship recipient, said the scholarships represent an opportunity for many Maine students they otherwise would not have. He said that, as the son of immigrant parents, if he had not received similar support when he graduated from Waterville High School at the age of 16, his life would have been “very different” from the one that has taken him to the U.S. Senate and to the Middle East and Northern Ireland as a high-level envoy to peace negotiations.

But beyond the benefit to each recipient from the scholarship program, he said, it benefits the state and the nation to have Mainers going on to earn higher degrees. The $8.2 million in scholarships the institute has awarded to more than 1,800 students, he said, is an investment in the future of Maine and the country.

“You have to think of this as an investment because, remember, each of these young men and women, if they go on to college and graduate from college, will earn over their lifetimes far more than they would otherwise earn if they didn’t get a college education,” Mitchell said Sunday at the luncheon, which was held at the Wells Conference Center at UMaine. “That’s not speculation, that’s historical fact. That’s been demonstrated by study after study.”

Mitchell said it is important to keep this kind of philosophy in mind, especially at a time when the national economy is doing so poorly. A healthy economy and a balanced federal budget both depend on people having jobs, he said. Whether a person can find a job, he said, is closely correlated to the degree to which they are educated.

“The president, members of Congress, and everyone involved in public office has to realize that the central problem facing our country is unemployment, the lack of jobs, the lack of economic growth,” Mitchell said. Providing college scholarships to Maine students “is an investment in our economy, in our state, in the growth of our country, because they’re going to be much more productive citizens than they otherwise would have been.”

Mitchell acknowledged the need to reduce federal spending but said it has to be balanced with funding programs that help stimulate the economy. Simply reducing federal spending without targeted investment in federal projects, he said, could make the economy worse.

“My biggest concern is the extent to which [cutting the federal budget] will further depress an already depressed economy — that it will result in less stimulation of the economy than otherwise would be the case,” Mitchell said. “I think you have to balance these things. What we need to do is take steps that achieve both objectives, getting growth in the economy going and embarking on long-term measures that will reduce the likelihood of the deficit continuing to explode and the debt to grow in coming years.”

The fact that the recent debt ceiling deal negotiated between Congress and President Obama calls for a reduction in federal subsidies for graduate and professional education programs illustrates the importance of private scholarship organizations such as the Mitchell Institute, the former senator added.

Mitchell founded the program in 1995, when he retired after serving in the Senate for 15 years. From 1995 to 1999, before the program was expanded, 25 students were selected each year to receive up to $2,500 in scholarships from the institute.

Beyond the issues of public spending, this year’s scholarship recipients were told they can think big and stay close to home at the same time. Hannah DeAngelis, a senior at Colby College who was named a Mitchell Scholar when she graduated from Maranacook Community High School in Readfield, told the new scholarship class that she stayed grounded in Maine by going to Colby College, but spent a semester abroad in Dakar, Senegal.

“I realized how far a girl from Maine can travel,” DeAngelis said. “Staying close to home and exploring the world are not mutually exclusive plans. Going to college in Maine does not have to be confining.”

Bill Trotter

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....