ORONO, Maine — The struggle of Maine students saddled with huge student loan debts has worked its way into political wrangling leading up to an election for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District seat that doesn’t happen for another 14 months.

On Monday, Maine Democratic leaders held a news conference at the University of Maine, where they repeatedly blasted freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin for supporting a budget that would have reduced funding for grants that support students from low-income families.

“Rep. Poliquin is trying to make it harder for people to pay for an education and work their way out of poverty,” state Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor, said during the event. “It’s frustrating to have someone in Washington that represents us seem to have more in common with Wall Street than Main Street.”

Democrats cited a March newspaper article that quoted Poliquin as saying he was “excited” to support a balanced federal budget proposal backed by Republican leadership. That budget included reduced Pell Grant funding. Pell Grants are federal awards for qualified low-income students that can range from a few hundred dollars to up to $5,775.

“Republicans in Congress should be doing everything they can to support this program,” said state Rep. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, during the same news conference. “Instead, they continue to use the Pell Grant as a negotiating chip.”

“College debt is strangling my generation,” Daughtry added.

Poliquin is poised to face off against Democrats Emily Cain, who he defeated in the 2014 elections, and Joe Baldacci, a Bangor City Councilor who earlier this summer announced plans to run for higher office, as he fights to retain his congressional seat in Maine’s 2nd District after the November 2016 elections.

More than $28 million in federal Pell Grants were issued in 2015 to Maine students through colleges and universities in Maine’s 2nd District, according to federal data.

After learning of Monday’s news conference, Poliquin’s office lashed back at the Democrats’ claims that the freshman congressman isn’t concerned with student indebtedness.

“To say Congressman Bruce Poliquin doesn’t see college indebtedness as an issue is completely false and misleading,” spokesman Michael Byerly said. “Like many Mainers, Congressman Poliquin worked multiple jobs, such as digging sewer lines and painting roofs in Central Maine, to help pay for [his] college costs.”

Poliquin was among Republicans who backed a proposal to freeze the maximum possible Pell Grant award at its current level of $5,775 for the next 10 years. Republicans say that move stalled a budgetary shortfall in the Pell program that was expected to hit by 2017, and that capping the award ensured Pell Grants would be secure and available to students for years to come.

Byerly called Democrats’ assertions inaccurate and misleading, and their news conference a “political stunt.” He said the budget Poliquin supported ensured the long-term health of the Pell Grant program.

‘A real struggle’

In Maine, college students leave school with an average of $30,000 in debt. That’s the seventh-highest average of any state in the country, according to The Institute for College Access and Success. The institute also says more than 60 percent of Maine students leave school with debt.

Eleni Margaronis, 28, of Farmington has an undergraduate degree in sociology and a master’s degree in education leadership to show for her years at the University of Maine.

She also has about $120,000 in accumulated debt.

Her father was an immigrant from Greece and neither of her parents had been to college in the United States, so her family wasn’t sure how to navigate the waters of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or scholarship applications. By the time she became more aware of available tuition support options, Margaronis already was working several jobs to support herself through school and didn’t have much time to seek out or apply for scholarships.

“Who would want to take on $120,000 in debt? I could own a house if that weren’t hanging over my head,” Margaronis said during a recent interview.

Her suggested payments are over $1,000 per month. For every month she defers payment, she expects she’ll accrue about $500 in interest.

Holding tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of debt that early on can delay a graduate’s life — putting off home or car purchases, or pushing back plans to start a family. Other students, upon seeing how much they’ll owe by the end of their education, decide to forgo their education for a year — or indefinitely — so they can work to earn money in hopes they’ll be able to afford to continue their education in the future.

Since 1985, the overall consumer price index in the United States has risen 115 percent, while the cost of a college education has surged nearly 500 percent, according to Forbes Magazine.

“It’s been a real struggle,” Margaronis said. “However, I fully believe in continued education. I don’t regret getting the education that I have.”

Still, that debt has affected her life, and will continue to do so for a long time. That will also be the case for other students, even those whose debts are significantly smaller.

Cost delays

According to the University of Maine System, more than a quarter of students enrolled in one of the system’s seven campuses in 2013 failed to return at the start of the spring 2014 semester.

For some of those students, the costs became too much. Others couldn’t balance schoolwork with the jobs they needed to work to pay for those classes and books, and their grades suffered.

About 60 percent of University of Maine System students earn their four-year degree within six years of the start of their education, but that’s still better than national averages.

Retention rates are lower at Maine’s community colleges, where some students will leave after accumulating a year or two of credits in an effort to save money while earning a four-year degree, and others are on longer-term learning paths. About 25 percent of Maine’s community college students receive a two-year degree within three years of attendance.

Both systems have been working in recent years to retain more students and convince students who left because finances or life interfered to return and complete their degrees.

The University of Maine System, for example, agreed to hold its in-state tuition costs steady for the fifth consecutive year. The rest of the nation’s universities averaged a 17-percent tuition increase over that same time.

In exchange for the system’s efforts to keep college costs down, Maine agreed to keep its funding for UMS public higher education flat. Other states, including Arizona, Connecticut, Louisiana and Wisconsin, have cut funding for state universities and colleges in the past year, some dramatically.

In the race

The growing debt crisis has prompted politicians to turn their attention to the issue and driven strong rhetoric in fledgling campaigns.

“Today, students are incurring insurmountable debts and are being discouraged from pursuing the schools and careers of their choice because of it,” Poliquin wrote in a recent opinion piece for Maine Wire. “That’s why I supported a budget that will help save Pell Grants from disappearing because of skyrocketing costs.”

Poliquin also said he was “awestruck” by the cost of college when his son started school several years ago.

Both Cain and Baldacci have said college affordability is an issue of great importance, and both joined their party in criticizing Poliquin for his support of the Republican budget proposal.

“College debt is a crisis for our state and our country that is causing too many Maine families and families across the country to lose sleep at night worrying about how they will pay off the debt or afford college at all,” Cain said. “We have to take action that gives those drowning in debt options to get on their feet again, and prevents the next generation from ending up in the same crisis.”

“We can’t expect to build a stronger middle class without making every attempt to open access to higher education to as many Maine families as we can, regardless of income,” Baldacci said. “The whole reason I entered this race is because I think the issues and concerns of the people of this district are being willfully ignored by the only person in Congress paid to be responsible for them [referring to Poliquin].”

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.