Students who graduate from Maine colleges and universities carry some of the most staggering debt burdens in the nation.
Keeping tuition as low as possible and ensuring the availability of significant financial aid are important to keeping college affordable and keeping debt in check. But that’s not all there is to it.
Too few Maine students who begin college actually finish. Too few students who finish earn their degree within four years — or within two years for an associate degree. Because students who spend more time working on their degrees rack up more debt and miss out on time they could be earning salaries, Maine’s dismally low on-time college completion rates are integrally connected to the college affordability challenge.
A new report released by the group Educate Maine and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce appropriately recognizes this and emphasizes boosting college completion rates as one of six overarching strategies to address college affordability.
Statewide, fewer than half of full-time Maine public college students — 47.8 percent — earn a degree within six years, according to data compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Just 28.3 percent earn their degree in four years. Both those rates lag the national and New England averages, and Maine’s completion rate has dropped in recent years.
It quickly becomes clear, then, why so many Maine students graduate with crushing debt — or, worse, don’t graduate at all but still have crushing debt. The Complete College America alliance estimates the true cost of each additional year spent working toward a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. is more than $68,000 — $23,000 in attendance costs and $45,000 in lost earnings potential. At the University of Maine, an in-state student who graduates in four years typically finishes $22,000 in debt. The student who finishes in six years comes out owing nearly $33,500.
Maine has taken some helpful — but small — steps that could result in more students completing college on time. The state last year increased the awards available through the State of Maine Grant program, a need-based grant for low-income undergraduate students. A study released late last year showed the completion rate among grant recipients was higher than Maine’s overall six-year college completion rate. Also last year, the University of Maine launched Think 30, an effort aimed at encouraging students to take on full-time course loads to stay on track to graduate within four years. The effort involves a strengthened advising system and the introduction of a winter session, when students who have fallen behind can make up credits during an extended winter break.
But the efforts are far from sufficient. In fact, research on college persistence shows exactly what Maine could be doing — but isn’t — to boost on-time college completion. That research 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.
West Virginia’s PROMISE Scholarship offers one model — an award that renews annually when participants remain enrolled full time at a West Virginia public college and meet academic performance requirements.
Starting this fall, Massachusetts could offer Maine another example. Through the Commonwealth Commitment, students who start at a community college, remain enrolled full time, maintain a 3.0 GPA and commit to transferring later to a Massachusetts public college or university are eligible for frozen tuition rates throughout their four years, plus 10 percent tuition rebates at the end of each successfully completed semester.
Policymakers may balk at the initial cost of a worthy investment — even as they spend taxpayer money to bail out industries with no clear future — but it’s clear that Maine is in desperate need of a more educated workforce, that its public colleges and universities need to boost completion rates and that the most effective way for the state to realize a return on its investment in students involves following a path similar to that of West Virginia or Massachusetts.