Everyone knows the key data points by now: Maine has historically had high rates of high school graduation, but a college-going rate that is average at best. About two-thirds of Maine high school students start college, but only about half of them graduate. Maine’s on-time graduation rate, which means completing a degree in six years, is the lowest in New England. And all of this occurs in a context in which an estimated 60 percent of jobs in the next 10 years will require some education after high school — but less than 40 percent of workforce-age adults in Maine have more than a high school diploma.
And even though Maine’s public university system has the lowest tuition in New England, our students graduate with significant debt.
The bottom line is that Maine faces significant challenges that mean a college education remains out of reach for too many families.
As part of his campaign for governor, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud created a program to reduce the cost of higher education for Maine students, reduce their debt burden and break down one significant barrier to on-time college graduation.
The plan is innovative. It takes a look at the data and explores a solution that’s tailored to fit the evidence. And the evidence suggests that helping students get past the sophomore year makes a big difference in success rates.
It’s creative, simple and easy to understand. It doesn’t require gimmicks or complicated schemes to push the cost of higher education down the road. Instead, it says that Maine should make it a priority to help more kids graduate from college on time and with lower debt, and it says we’re going to do this in a fiscally responsible and affordable way.
In a gubernatorial campaign, the safe route is to talk in generalities, about goals and aspirations, and to avoid the details that give opponents the opportunity to attack.
After all, it’s hard to argue that college shouldn’t be more affordable. But it’s pretty easy to knock the details of any plan.
And that’s just what the Bangor Daily News did in an editorial discussing Michaud’s plan to make college more affordable.
The paper offered two general critiques: That the plan should focus more on a need-based model, whereby assistance goes to only the poorest students; and that it doesn’t cover room and board, which are expensive parts of attending higher education.
The editorial then holds up West Virginia’s Promise Scholarship as a possible alternative. Interestingly, the four-year Promise Scholarship isn’t need-based and it doesn’t cover room or board either. It is, however, much larger and more costly than Michaud’s targeted approach.
As with any plan, there is always room for further inquiry and exploration of other models to make the plan as strategic and impactful as possible. But having a plan — and a commitment — demonstrates Michaud’s recognition of the issue of college affordability and increased educational attainment for Maine’s workforce as a key priority.
Gov. Paul LePage has made clear that his priorities are tax cuts for the wealthy and lower wages and fewer protections for employees. His dream is to turn Maine into a low-wage, poorly educated state because he says that’s how Maine can compete with Alabama and Mississippi for large-scale manufacturing companies.
Michaud has a different plan.
His Maine Made business and investment plan looks to build on Maine’s strengths, to help small and mid-sized businesses to grow, to make sure all our kids can receive a quality education and to invest in the people and places that make our state great.
Michaud’s plan is bold — and even as it addresses the financial barriers that many Maine families face, it also signals the state’s commitment to a brighter future for our students and our state.
Michaud has demonstrated the ability to bring people together, regardless of political party, to move Maine forward. And as much as anything that’s what sets his plan apart — he can actually make sure it happens.
Bill Hiss, recently retired from Bates College, was the dean or vice president leading admissions and financial aid for 22 years. He also served for six years on the Federal Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance.