January 30

FROM THE STATE HOUSE: Making college affordable for all Mainers is crucial to our future

Sen. Justin Alfond & Sen. Roger Katz

SETH IS A 17-YEAR-OLD high school student. He is motivated, has good grades, and wants to make something of himself. His parents both work, and they own their modest home, but they don’t have many dollars left over at the end of the month.

Amanda is 31. Recently divorced, she is now a single mom of two young children. She works 30 hours per week at a big-box retail store but realizes she is going to have to upgrade her skill set if she is to provide for her kids in the way she wants. She has some college credits from a few years ago, but still needs more credits for a degree.

Eddie is 43. He was recently laid off from his paper mill job because of lack of orders. With only a high school education, he has begun looking into furthering his education to be able to compete in the “new economy.”

We all know Seth, Amanda and Eddie, or people like them. They live next door, on the next block, or in the next town. They all share two things in common.

• Each wants to further his or her education in one of our state universities or community colleges, and for good reason. The numbers do not lie: College graduates earn, on average, 84 percent more over their lifetime than those without their degree.

• Higher education can be very expensive. They ask themselves whether they can afford to saddle themselves with significant educational debt when there is no guarantee of employment at the other end.

Seth, Amanda and Eddie embody one of our significant public policy issues in Maine and across the country: the growing cost of higher education. Keeping college affordable is one of Maine’s more significant challenges.

That is why we both have submitted bills to the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee for consideration to focus attention and begin addressing this important issue. Together the bills lay out a number of options that the committee could enact to help keep college affordable for Mainers. The ideas come from all ends of the spectrum and take numerous different approaches.

For example, from 3,000 miles away in Oregon, comes a creative, outside-the-box strategy. It is called “Pay It Forward.” Although the devil is in the details, the basics of the plan are quite simple. A student and the state enter into a contract. The state agrees to provide free tuition and fees to a state university or community college. In return, the student agrees to pay a certain percentage of her or his income back to the state over a period of years. For instance, for a four-year degree program, the student might agree to pay 4 percent of his income to the state for a period of 20 years (the actual numbers would be product of a complicated actuarial analysis).

If the student ends up with a lucrative job, he or she would pay back more than someone who remained unemployed or accepted a lower paying position. Each, however, would pay the same percentage.

The number of years and percentage amount would be less for community colleges, since tuition there is less. The program is designed to be self-funding after the initial startup costs, as the amount graduates pay from their future income would be used to fund future tuition and fees for the next generation — thus the “Pay it Forward” label.

Obviously, this idea is not without significant challenges and questions. How are the upfront costs going to be paid to get programs up and running? In this difficult budget environment, Maine cannot afford a direct appropriation. Perhaps a revenue bond? Perhaps a consortium of Maine banks agreeing to create a “private revenue bond” or funding pool? There may be other creative ideas out there.

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