College affordability is a topic that gets bounced around political debates, but oftentimes falls flat when it comes to following through on the policy end.
There is no magic wand to this issue. When the state (and the country for that matter) is facing budget shortfalls, the idea that we could pay for every single person to go to college for free is just financially unrealistic. Being the youngest member of the Maine House, at 22, I’m not that far removed from the college cost issue. In fact, many of my peers I graduated with at Thornton Academy are still battling student loan payments or the challenge of saving up in order to obtain some level of post secondary education.
Too many either couldn’t afford it at all or will be in debt for many decades to come paying it off. With that said, there are programs out there that are underutilized that include taking college classes for free or at reduced cost while in high school. I earned 12 credits of college for the cost of textbooks during my senior year at Thornton through the University of Southern Maine. Not many of my peers even knew of the program, so increasing awareness and encouragement is critical.
Scholarships are plentiful, though you really have to do your homework to find them all, and spend countless hours applying for them. Trust me, it was like a part-time job just filling out all of the paperwork and meeting the requirements that include essays, resumes, etc.
If a particular major isn’t offered at a public college or university in Maine, there is a program through theNew England Board of Higher Education called the New England Regional Student Program. It is a tuition break for those students to stay in New England at a public institution for the major not offered in Maine. The tuition break allows Maine students a reduction in their tuition, enough to be lower than out-of-state tuition and a bit higher than in-state tuition. About 500 Maine students participated in the program this year.
Luckily for me, between this New England Board of Higher Education program, going to a public college versus a private one, scholarships, taking classes in high school, family assistance, and working multiple jobs including being the assistant morning producer for Fox 23’s “Good Day Maine,” I was able to pull it off without major debt. Though the one program I wasn’t able to apply for was the Opportunity Maine program.
The Opportunity Maine program enables students who go to college in Maine and stay to work here afterwards a tax credit on their student loans worth up to $4,272 a year. While it doesn’t handle upfront costs, this is a step toward trying to reduce the burden. In 2012, according to Maine Revenue Services, 1,157 students took advantage of the tax credit, which is 710 students more than the previous year. As mentioned, we are incentivizing students to go out of state, but not incentivizing them to come back to Maine. We should be incentivizing young people to come back to Maine to help avoid the brain drain – where students leave for school and then stay away to apply their skills and knowledge they obtained.
A bill I’m co-sponsoring with Rep. Cathy Nadeau of Winslow would expand Opportunity Maine to reach the Maine students that fall in this gap and go to school in New England in a major not offered here in the state. Hundreds of Maine students would be able to participate and help relieve one less headache toward coming back to the state to work and living the way life should be.
LD 1421, an act to permit a student holding a degree from a non-Maine institution to participate in the job creation through educational opportunity program, has passed the House and the Senate, though it awaits the governor’s signature and funding from the appropriations committee.
While there is a small fiscal note attached to the bill, funding will primarily come from existing resources within the program. This is a win-win for our young people and for our state’s long term economic engine.
Justin Chenette is the state representative for Saco, CEO of Chenette Media LLC, and the founder/president of the Saco Bay Center of Civic Engagement. To contact Justin and to follow updates you can visit www.justinchenette.com, Facebook.com/JustinChenette, and Twitter.com/JustinChenette.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco