Saturday, March 8, 2014
The link between a college education and success in adult life is much discussed and much documented.
So is the fact that Maine lags not only the national average but also the rest of New England in the percentage of the adult population who have a college education.
That's why it's so commendable -- and so critical -- that the state is addressing a longstanding obstacle to earning a college degree in Maine.
A measure passed this spring gives the Maine Community College System and the University of Maine System until the fall of 2014 to set up a uniform and seamless credit transfer process.
This new policy can't take effect too soon. Community college students are losing time and money when their credits don't transfer with them to one of Maine's seven university campuses. The cost not only to our economy but also to students' enthusiasm and hope for the future is far too high.
Transferring from a Maine community college to one of the state's public universities has long been promoted as a sure path to a bachelor's degree. The idea of saving money on a four-year degree program by spending one or two of those years in community college appeals to students. In reality, however, the transition hasn't been seamless.
When community college students apply to a university system school, they find too often that the university won't accept credits they earned at the two-year school. For example, a community college computer science class may not count toward a university computer science degree. Why? The material taught in the community college class isn't considered as rigorous. The result? The student winds up having to repeat the course.
Research has shown that the difficulty of transferring credits is a big reason why students stay in college so long. According to the advocacy group Complete College America, it takes the average full-time student 3.8 years to get a two-year associate degree and 4.7 years to get a four-year bachelor's degree.
Maine and Maine community college students don't have the money or time to spare. Eighty-two percent of people enrolled full-time in Maine's community colleges get financial aid. Community college students who transfer to the university system are likely even more strapped, considering that a year at the University of Maine, the system's flagship school, costs more than three times a year at a community college. The average age of a Maine community college student is 27; they are adults who need the academic credentials so they more easily support themselves and their families.
The need for a smoother transfer process will only grow. Enrollment in Maine's community colleges is burgeoning. It nearly doubled between 2002 and 2012, and it's risen 25 percent in the last four years alone.
And while the state appropriation hasn't kept up with the boom in enrollment, a solution to the credit-transfer problem isn't necessarily a big-ticket expenditure. Other states have faced the same issue, giving rise to the community college student success movement and policies and programs supported by education foundations. They should serve as a useful source of information as Maine strives to make it easier for students to move between its community colleges and universities.
Maine students already face a number of barriers to getting a college education. The state needs to work as hard as it can to make sure that its own policies don't make the process even more difficult.