We share Gov. Paul LePage’s desire to make higher education more accessible and affordable, as well as his frustration that the state’s community colleges and universities are too slow to make needed changes.
The governor is upset that the community college system is not committed enough to programs that offer college courses to high school students. During a meeting Friday with reporters to discuss his budget proposal, LePage said John Fitzsimmons should resign.
On Monday, LePage doubled down and said community college trustees would “feel the wrath” if they didn’t dump Fitzsimmons.
First, the governor should have a conversation directly with President John Fitzsimmons and the system’s board of trustees to explain why early college courses are such a priority to him. Second, he could have allocated money in the budget to these programs.
Increasing the percentage of Mainers with college degrees has been a priority for decades, but progress has been slow. According to the most recent Measures of Growth report from the Maine Development Foundation, 37 percent of Maine residents 25 and older had a higher education degree in 2012, up from about 30 percent in 2000. Post-secondary degree attainment in New England was 44.6 percent.
There are individual and societal benefits to an educated population. Those with college degrees earn more on average than those without over their lifetimes. As a result, college graduates pay more in taxes.
More important, educated workers draw businesses.
It is no surprise Maine repeatedly has ranked poorly for its business climate. Maine gets especially low marks for its growth prospects — no surprise, given the state’s stagnant population and aged workforce. But, it also is below average and dropping in its labor supply, a measure that takes into account the percentage of adults who have completed high school and population growth trends. It’s a big driver of potential growth. In 2014, Maine’s labor supply rank was 36 in Forbes’ annual business climate survey; it was 28 in 2011.
Without a large pool of educated workers — preferably one that is growing — big employers aren’t going to look favorably to Maine as a place to put a new facility or to expand.
One way to increase college attendance — and graduation — is to have students start earlier. A study by the Mitchell Institute found that students who take at least one college course while in high school are more likely to go on to college (80 percent) than their peers who do not (60 percent).
LePage has become a big champion of early college, frequently touting an initiative at the University of Maine at Fort Kent and the Bridge Year program at Hermon High School, in which students begin taking college courses while in high school, accelerating their path to a degree. In addition to faster degree completion, the programs have an added benefit for students: they lower the cost of a college education.
LePage is angry the community college system has dropped out of the Bridge Year program, not participated in the Fort Kent project and credit transfers remain a problem.
The community college system has its own program called Early College for ME, which offers students at 76 Maine high schools the opportunity to take community colleges classes for free and to receive scholarships to attend a community college.
A 2012 report from a task force created by the governor to look into early college programs said one of the biggest impediments to increased participation in these programs is uncertain funding.
“Schools and colleges have a number of early college programs in place, but the sustainability of such programs in the face of continuing budget pressures is uncertain,” the Governor’s Task Force on Expanding Early Post-Secondary Access for High School Students wrote in January 2012.
In his proposed budget for the next two years, LePage essentially flat-funds the community college system while increasing funding for the University of Maine System, which is in the midst of difficult budget cutting work.
No matter who is the head of the community college system, the president, trustees and the governor must continue to work closely together to pursue the best ways to increase the number of Mainers of all ages who have college degrees.