When I was a junior at Skowhegan High School, it seemed like I got mail from a different college every day — glossy pamphlets explaining why that school was the right one for me. I always knew I would go to college, but where would I go? How would I pay? For my friends and I, these decisions would easily be the biggest we had ever made.
Our parents tried to help us prepare for higher education and student debt, but a lot had changed since they were in school — if they went at all. They were learning, too. Guidance counselors offered some advice, but in retrospect, it wasn’t enough.
I knew post-secondary education was more important than ever. But tuition was growing faster than inflation every year and, we now know, faster than financial aid could keep up with. Meanwhile, a cottage industry of student loan providers was waiting in the wings, eager to sell us loans with dizzying contracts and high interest rates.
This story plays out in every high school in our state and our country. Nationally, student debt has surpassed credit card debt, reaching a whopping $1.4 trillion last year. Here in Maine, the average debt for graduates is nearly $30,000 — the 14th highest in the U.S. — and many Mainers’ debt loads are larger than that.
One in 10 student debtors in Maine are in default, while many of those who are able to make payments are seeing their dreams and futures put on hold because of it. They are unable to buy homes, save for retirement, or start businesses or families because there isn’t enough money in the bank after the student loans are paid. By limiting graduates’ purchasing power and preventing them from building the foundation for their futures, student debt drags down our entire economy.
That’s why I’ve proposed bold action in the Legislature to relieve the burden of student debt.
My bill — LD 1163 — would provide tens of millions of dollars to forgive eligible Mainers’ student debt by having the state make payments on their behalf. The program would be available to lifelong Mainers, as well as workers we want to attract from away. Recipients must agree to stay in our state for at least five years because if Maine is going to invest in you, you should be willing to be a part of Maine’s success by living and working in our state.
Unlike tax credits and other programs, forgiveness will have an immediate effect on Mainers’ monthly budgets. Every dollar forgiven is one that can be put toward a down payment on a home or otherwise invested in the local economy.
I believe in personal responsibility. I also believe that smart investments in our people and economy will pay dividends for our whole state. Student debt holders did everything they were told to do by guidance counselors, financial aid officers and their parents. Many were were taken advantage of by lenders that preyed on their desire to improve their lives by obtaining a college degree.
The big banks that caused the Great Recession got a bailout. So did the automakers that failed to adapt to a changing economy. So why shouldn’t we offer a lifeline to Mainers whose futures are in jeopardy? Why shouldn’t we stimulate our economy by giving relief to Mainers struggling under student debt?
I have found allies in the most unlikely places: Gov. Paul LePage understands the effect student debt is having on our economy. And he knows that by offering meaningful relief, Maine can attract and retain the young, skilled workers it desperately needs for its future. He supports my bill.
We won majority support in both chambers of the Legislature during initial votes in July. Unfortunately, even with LePage’s support, too many Republicans remained opposed, withholding the two-thirds support necessary to pass this bill.
Earlier this year, I visited more than a dozen Maine communities to talk about the challenges and opportunities ahead for our state. Everywhere I went, people identified student debt as big hurdle for our state’s success. They understand the seriousness of this problem.
We’re working to win our GOP colleagues’ votes, but they need to hear from Mainers the same way I did. They need to hear your stories about student debt. Your voices matter. So get a hold of your elected officials and tell them: It’s time to take action and pass student debt relief — for Maine’s families, its economy and its future.
Nate Libby is the assistant Democratic leader in the Maine Senate.