Maine is contemplating a future this fall that might not include two paper mills that have long employed hundreds in their communities and powered local economies.

What’s critical is that such contemplation turn into action. But concerted, focused, long-term, ambitious action to prepare Maine for a new economy hasn’t been this state’s strong suit. The result has been an economy unprepared to absorb the impact of hundreds of lost manufacturing jobs from mill closures and the loss of the jobs the mills help support.

Maine’s economic turnaround will indisputably depend on a workforce with the skills necessary to help businesses thrive — whatever the industry and whatever the size of the business. That means Maine, if it stands a chance of fostering a competitive edge and reviving its local economies, needs to invest in the skills of its people.

A report released Wednesday by the Lumina Foundation, which works nationwide to boost college attainment, should serve as a powerful reminder of how much Maine stands to gain from such an investment — in other words, seeing to it that more Maine residents attend college and stick with it until they earn a degree.

In 2012, the average U.S. resident with a bachelor’s degree earned $56,122, more than double the average salary of a high school graduate, $24,010, according to the report, written by University of Maine economist Philip Trostel. Someone didn’t have to have a bachelor’s degree in order to realize a significant economic benefit from continuing his or her education. The average salary of an associate degree holder was $36,178 — 51 percent more than the average high school grad.

Over time, those increased earnings accrue into a substantial lifetime earnings premium for bachelor’s and associate degree holders.

Trostel also shows that the college benefit isn’t limited to added earnings. Education holds a laundry list of benefits — which Trostel quantifies — for the people who are educated and the communities in which they live.

College graduates, for example, are 44 percent more likely to be in good health, 3.9 times less likely to smoke, 47 percent more likely to have health insurance through their employer, 4.9 times less likely to be incarcerated and 3.5 times less likely to live in poverty. Those factors, over time, translate into $273,000 more in tax revenue for governments for each college graduate and $81,000 less in government expenditures needed to support them (through public assistance, for example). College graduates are also more likely to volunteer, contribute to charity and participate in civic life.

Unfortunately, Maine isn’t maximizing the educational potential of its people, so it’s missing out on the associated benefits.

Within the first two years after high school, only 69 percent of Maine high school graduates have enrolled in some form of higher education, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse. That leaves a substantial portion of students behind in an economy that so heavily favors those with post-secondary credentials. The picture looks even less promising for students from low-income backgrounds: Only 48 percent of economically disadvantaged students from the class of 2014 enrolled in college immediately following high school, compared with 73 percent of their higher-income counterparts.

Even among those who continue their education, too many don’t stick with it. Only 39 percent of Maine students who graduated from high school in 2008 had earned a degree within six years of finishing high school. That’s another way of looking at retention and graduation rates at Maine’s universities and community colleges that are disappointingly low. Part of the result is that about 200,000 Maine adults today have attended some college but earned no degree, meaning they haven’t realized the full return on their investment.

Maine’s economic turnaround will depend on the skills of its people. It’s time for Maine to act on that reality, investing in aid and academic support that helps low-income students attend colleges and ensures they stick with it. In the end, Maine will realize the many benefits from this investment.

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...