January 18, 2020
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One part of Maine’s turnaround: Get low-income students to college, keep them there

Mike Siegel | TNS
Mike Siegel | TNS
Student tutor Angie Foster (right) helps student Krystal Huffman with a math problem at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake, Washington, which offers learn-at-your-own-pace math classes, called "emporium math."

Maine could use some ambition and focus when it comes to making needed investments to turn around an economy that underperforms virtually every other state’s. Tennessee and Oregon have translated ambition into action, passing legislation to make community college free to their states’ graduating high school seniors. President Barack Obama has made a similar proposal to make community college free nationwide.

Should Maine follow suit?

This fall, about 14,000 Tennessee students who just finished high school are attending community college for free as Tennessee Promise takes effect. (Oregon Promise takes effect next fall.) For those who already receive some financial aid from state and federal sources, Tennessee Promise pays the balance of tuition and fees. For those who receive no financial aid through traditional means, Tennessee Promise pays the full cost out of state funds.

Early indications show the program is catching on. The number of Tennessee high school seniors who enrolled at a community college right after graduation jumped 14 percent this fall.

But the institutions most Tennessee Promise students are entering, community colleges, have struggled with exceptionally low retention and graduation rates. That means the true test of Tennessee Promise is not whether it can enroll more students in postsecondary education but whether it can keep them enrolled and on track to graduate. That’s the thinking behind the mentoring and support side of Tennessee Promise, which sets up students with mentors to guide them through the admissions process, then refers those most likely to struggle to support services once they’ve enrolled.

Maine, which has traditionally made incremental investments in workforce and economic development only to later lose focus, could benefit from the big thinking behind Tennessee’s and Oregon’s efforts to make some level of postsecondary education the norm for all students. But Maine, which trails the national average in college degree attainment, might consider a different approach to achieving that goal.

To start, the Tennessee and Oregon Promise programs don’t target funds to the students who need them most. And the emphasis on associate degrees, which indeed are the best option for some students, can come at the expense of encouraging students to pursue bachelor’s degrees at institutions better equipped to ensure their success.

The Promise initiatives are known as “last dollar” scholarships, so they pay the balance of tuition and fees not covered by other financial aid. But in Maine — and in most other states, Tennessee included — a low-income student who qualifies for the maximum Pell Grant award, $5,775, would already be able to attend one of Maine’s community colleges, where tuition and fees cost about $3,400 per year for a full-time student, at no cost. But a Promise-like program would cover the full cost for a higher-income student who qualifies for no other financial aid.

It’s not higher income students who need the encouragement to enroll in postsecondary classes. In Maine, according to the Mitchell Institute, only 48 percent of economically disadvantaged students from the class of 2014 enrolled in college immediately following high school, compared with 73 percent of nondisadvantaged students. That gap has grown since 2008, Mitchell Institute data show.

What an ambitious Maine intent on cultivating a workforce ready for high-skill jobs could use, then, is an initiative that targets aid to low-income students — ideally, not only help with tuition and fees — and provides them with academic support that helps them stay on track in order to graduate on time, whether from a University of Maine System campus or a community college. An active marketing component would help to let students know higher education is within their reach.

Research on student retention points to the importance of coupling financial assistance with academic support in which students are required to participate. Plus, it helps if the financial assistance is conditioned on students maintaining a minimum GPA and a nearly full-time course load, which increases the likelihood of completion.

The cost, obviously, wouldn’t be negligible. But if policymakers have decided Maine can afford to send surplus state funds to an income tax relief account, tap future liquor revenues in order to lower the income tax and forfeit $16 million in tax credits to bankroll a closed mill, surely they can find a way to make a critical investment in Maine people that will yield dividends.



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