The average student loan debt for Mainers who graduated from college last year is more than $30,000, one of the highest rates in the country. The state launched a tax credit 10 years ago aimed at helping graduates offset some of the burden of loan payments. Now, some advocates of the program see it as a key part of a strategy to bring more young people into to the state and keep them here. But some lawmakers says the program underutilized and overly complicated.
The sun is already close to setting on a recent Thursday evening. But math teacher Kathryn Peppe is still in her classroom at Sanford High School, guiding a student through a packet of problems.
“You have 10 more of those, and you’re done,” she told the student, “And you’ll be the first one done with the packet.”
Peppe’s day doesn’t end here, though. She works three jobs to pay the bills. Today, she will leave the high school at 5 p.m. to teach a local adult education class until 9 p.m. On two other days, she drives an hour north to Portland, where she teaches classes at a local community college. The 14-hour shifts often leave her with little time for herself.
“I used to love running! But I’ve had to give it up. And honestly, I haven’t run in two months,” she said. “Which is horrifying, because it’s my stress relief. But I don’t have time to do it. I don’t even have time to think. Because when I’m not here, I’m organizing things for all of the classes that I teach.”
But the extra jobs are necessary, Peppe says, to help pay off the mountains of student loan debt she accrued in college. A little more than a decade ago, Peppe entered the University of Southern Maine, and earned her math degree and teaching certificate in four years. After starting her first teaching job, she earned advanced degrees in special education and literacy. Like most students, she took out loans. She now owes more than $100,000.
“Usually, I try not to think about it,” Peppe said. “But when I do think about, it’s like a hole you can never dig your way out of.”
Peppe is not alone. The average student loan borrower in Maine left school last year owing more than $30,000. To help alleviate some of that burden, state lawmakers back in 2008 created “Opportunity Maine,” a program that would offer a tax credit to Maine residents who graduated from a Maine college during certain years. The tax credit that would cover a portion of their student loan payments, up to around $4,000.
Former Democratic State Senator Justin Alfond helped launch the program.
“We needed to address college debt,” he said. “And we needed to create an incentive for Mainers and those who came into our schools to stay here, and live, work and play.”
But after it was enacted, it got relatively little attention. By 2011, fewer than 1,000 graduates were using it. Over time, lawmakers gradually expanded it, and two years ago, they opened the tax credit up to any graduate in certain years from any school in the country.
Last year, more than 9,000 borrowers received around $17 million off their taxes through the program.