The ability for kids to go to college, to better themselves and subsequently their communities, can seem like a fleeting idea for many working and middle class families.
According to a Fidelity survey done this past spring with recent college graduates across the country, the average college-related debt is about $35,000. While this might be on the high-end for Maine students and just one survey, it is reflective of the growing costs of higher education. For many the price tag is simply not attainable, especially the often more expensive private colleges and universities. Public colleges like the University of Maine System and community colleges are paths that offer many Maine students an opportunity to compete in what has become a global economic marketplace.
In 2012, of the 13,255 Maine high school graduates, 63 percent, or 8,287 students, went on to attend college; 76 percent are attending a four-year school and 24 percent are attending a two-year school with 71 percent staying in Maine for their educational needs.
After meeting with officials at York County Community College at one of its legislative breakfasts, I discovered that its enrollment numbers are on the rise. In fact, community colleges have had to turn away more than 4,000 students in each of the last two years statewide from courses and programs they needed to complete a degree. The double-edge sword to increased enrollment is the space and facilities needed to grow with it to ensure they meet the demand.
Question 5 on the state ballot referendum on Nov. 5 asks: Do you favor a $15,500,000 bond issue to upgrade buildings, classrooms and laboratories on the seven campuses of the Maine Community College System in order to increase capacity to serve more students through expanded programs in healthcare, precision machining, information technology, criminal justice and other key programs?
Bonding isn’t always the answer. This isn’t free money. With that said, targeted investments in infrastructure and, in this case, education can be effective tools in expanding opportunities for economic growth in the long term. For us in the Saco Bay area, question 5 will invest $3.4 million in York County Community College. This money will go toward its plans for a $6.5 million expansion project with the rest of the resources coming from private money. As someone who took advantage of both a cheaper price tag for courses at York County Community College and the early studies program at USM while in high school, this is a much-needed project.
With the addition of a precision machining training facility, computer technology certificates/courses, and strong partnerships with regional job creators including manufacturers, the school is establishing itself as the go-to place for young people who want to head into a specialized trade, gain 21st century skill sets and for those later in life trying for a second career. This emphasis is critical for the so-called skills gap we are facing in Maine. An estimated 4,000 jobs will go unfilled by 2018 because businesses can’t find workers with the skills they need. Those skills can be and are being taught at community colleges. This problem isn’t going away as Maine’s population is retiring and aging in record numbers. We must keep young people here by providing the educational and subsequent economic opportunities that incentivize and warrant a successful Maine life; the way life should be.
While the question 5 bond isn’t a magic wand, it is a targeted investment in something that is working and can work to help Maine’s longterm economic engine be not only sustainable, but also, hopefully grow. I urge you to vote yes on 5.
Justin Chenette is the state representative for Saco. You follow his updates at www.justinchenette.com and via facebook.com/justinforsaco.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco