What is one Southern Maine Community College credit worth at the University of Southern Maine? And what is one credit at the University of Maine at Presque Isle worth at the University of Maine?

Those are questions Maine’s higher education system has struggled to answer for decades. The answer has rarely been straight-forward. But officials with the Maine Community College and University of Maine systems say they’re closer than ever to answering both questions with less headache-inducing answers.

That’s good news, because bureaucratic hurdles have no place in holding up or complicating that process, especially when post-secondary credentials are so important to students’ job prospects and they need to be as accessible and affordable as possible.

Since its 1968 inception, the University of Maine System has struggled with the challenge of effectively and efficiently transferring credits among its seven institutions — due to obstacles both technical and political. Now, the system says it’s close to launching a workable, seamless transfer arrangement this fall or next.

At the same time, many in Maine have long recognized the need for a similarly seamless arrangement allowing community college students to redeem their qualifying course credits for credit toward a bachelor’s degree within the University of Maine System.

That similarly slow-going arrangement came a significant step closer to becoming reality Monday when the leaders of Maine’s university and community college systems signed their most comprehensive credit transfer agreement yet. Ultimately, the agreement should allow liberal arts students at any of the state’s seven community colleges to transfer their general education requirements to any of Maine’s seven public universities and apply them to a degree.

The plan is to deploy the transfer arrangement by fall 2016.

It’s promising to see Maine’s two systems of public higher education, both with seven separate institutions, work together so closely on something that clearly matters. Maine community college students have long been transferring to Maine universities in hopes of continuing their education. In each of the past five fall semesters, an average of 740 community college students have transferred to a Maine university; they’ve made up more than a third of University of Maine System transfer students in recent years.

The community college-university transfer statistics point to the pure demand for the more comprehensive credit transfer accord reached Monday. But they also beg the question: What took so long?

Higher education officials have spoken for decades about plans to simplify the transfer process. Rather than fully commit themselves to the work and strike a deal, the Band-Aid approach has predominated. Maine’s community colleges and universities have inked 150 separate articulation agreements over the years, often allowing students at one specific campus in one specific program (say, nursing at Northern Maine Community College) to transfer their credits to another specific campus and specific program (the bachelor of nursing program at the University of Southern Maine, for example). Though 150 agreements cover a significant portion of academic programs, they don’t constitute the systematic fix Maine has long needed.

Monday’s agreement gets Maine closer. But it’s important to note it’s an agreement to make credit transfers work more seamlessly in the future. (The Maine Community College System still needs to expand its general education requirements for an associate of arts degree to match university requirements.) And it applies for now only to the liberal arts; sciences aren’t part of this agreement.

The credit transfer agreement, in addition, doesn’t replace the dozens of articulation agreements that have been reached in recent decades.

University of Maine System Chancellor James Page said the agreement showed an “unsurpassed level of cooperation and agreement between the two systems.”

After years in which two systems of seven institutions each in a small state of 1.3 million people have seldom collaborated and pooled resources, perhaps this can be the start of a more meaningful relationship.

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...