Mainers Give Grads Debt Relief

Their state’s economy at a crossroads, politicians embrace Opportunity Maine, which eases the financial burden of going to college

Adam Doster

College graduates in Maine may no longer be looking off into the distance when it comes to searching for jobs.

Andrew Bossie was tired of bad bal­lot ref­er­en­dums. After spend­ing the fall of 2005 with Maine stu­dent activists and the League of Young Vot­ers fight­ing a ref­er­en­dum that would have gut­ted an anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion bill writ­ten to pro­tect Maine’s gay pop­u­la­tion, he decid­ed to go on the offen­sive and use the same process to address the needs of Maine’s students.

Peo­ple were drop­ping out of school because they couldn’t afford it, peo­ple were leav­ing the state after grad­u­a­tion instead of con­tribut­ing back and grow­ing the econ­o­my,” he says. It was a huge problem.” 

So the for­mer Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Maine stu­dent body pres­i­dent and his new­ly cre­at­ed polit­i­cal action com­mit­tee, Oppor­tu­ni­ty Maine, devel­oped a pro­pos­al that would ease some of the finan­cial bur­den of going to col­lege. Then, Bossie and 500 vol­un­teers logged more than 12,000 hours can­vass­ing on street cor­ners in the bru­tal Maine win­ter to gath­er the 73,000 sig­na­tures need­ed to put their pro­pos­al on the bal­lot in the Novem­ber 2007 election.

But a fun­ny thing hap­pened on the way to elec­tion day. Leg­is­la­tors grew so enam­ored with the bill that they pre-emp­tive­ly passed it – only the sixth time in a cen­tu­ry that Maine law­mak­ers enact­ed a citizen’s ini­tia­tive with­out send­ing it to statewide ref­er­en­dum. So as of June 22, help is on the way for Maine stu­dents in the form of Oppor­tu­ni­ty Maine, an inno­v­a­tive local answer to the stu­dent debt crisis. 

Oppor­tu­ni­ty Maine autho­rizes tax cred­its to refund edu­ca­tion­al loan pay­ments for any Main­er who earns an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in Maine and then pro­ceeds to live, work and pay tax­es in the Pine Tree State after grad­u­a­tion. While the amount avail­able for the cred­it would be capped at the cost of tuition and fees for the Uni­ver­si­ty of Maine sys­tem or the Maine Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege sys­tem, stu­dents at cost­lier pri­vate col­leges can also apply for the break. As it stands, a grad­u­ate with a bachelor’s degree can be reim­bursed up to $2,100 per year for four years. And, in a coup for the busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty, employ­ers can agree to make the loan pay­ment on behalf of hired stu­dents and then claim the tax cred­it themselves.

This par­tic­u­lar bill is good for Main­ers because the state’s econ­o­my is at a cross­roads. The decline in qual­i­ty man­u­fac­tur­ing and nat­ur­al resource-based jobs has caused aver­age income to drop 30 per­cent below the New Eng­land aver­age. Mean­while, Maine has one of the high­est high school grad­u­a­tion rates in the coun­try, but only 57 per­cent of stu­dents pur­sue high­er edu­ca­tion, main­ly because of finan­cial con­straints. And those who do grad­u­ate col­lege leave school with an aver­age debt of more than $21,000 (the sev­enth high­est in the nation), a main rea­son why 53 per­cent of stu­dents leave Maine for high­er com­pen­sa­tion in places like Massachusetts.

While the state’s econ­o­my is on the ropes, all is not lost. Accord­ing to Chart­ing Maine’s Future,” an Octo­ber 2006 report by the Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion, the build­ing blocks for a diverse and vibrant econ­o­my remain. For one, in the past sev­en years the state has wit­nessed a sub­stan­tial pop­u­la­tion boom, jump­ing from 46th to 26th in the coun­try in annu­al­ized growth rate. Maine also out­per­formed the nation in job cre­ation dur­ing the last eco­nom­ic cycle and has seen growth (albeit hum­ble) in high-tech indus­tries like boat-build­ing, advanced mate­ri­als and biotech­nol­o­gy. But, the report warns, Maine’s aging pop­u­la­tion includes too few young work­ers and too few high­ly skilled or edu­cat­ed people.” 

There’s been a grow­ing aware­ness of how impor­tant it is to have a high­ly edu­cat­ed pop­u­la­tion if you want to stim­u­late an econ­o­my and be com­pet­i­tive,” says Anya Kamenetz, author of Gen­er­a­tion Debt. And Maine is very aware that they have catch­ing up to do.”

The bill’s major strength is its attrac­tive­ness to mul­ti­ple con­stituents. It eas­es the increas­ing bur­den of col­lege pay­ment for stu­dents and their fam­i­lies. Busi­ness­es will grow more com­pet­i­tive with an influx of tal­ent­ed appli­cants. The state will ben­e­fit with an injec­tion of new tax dol­lars and con­sump­tion. And pro­po­nents claim that finan­cial­ly, the pro­pos­al will break even or bet­ter by 2015, as the state gen­er­ates more income as a result of high­er income tax­es and a stronger econ­o­my. I think the essence of it appeals to a lot of peo­ple because it’s a real­ly good idea and one that’s real­ly need­ed,” says Bri­an Hiatt, com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor for the League of Young Voters.

Some crit­ics con­tend that the law should also include Maine res­i­dents who attend out-of-state col­leges but still want to move back home. Oth­ers ques­tion its focus on Maine at the expense of the nation­al econ­o­my. But such dis­senters are few and far between. Kamenetz says cre­at­ing incen­tives for edu­ca­tion­al attain­ment could strike a chord with stu­dents rights’ activists nationwide. 

While it’s a real­ly iso­lat­ed local effort, it does go far­ther than most of these nation­al actions because you’re actu­al­ly pay­ing off people’s loans, you’re not just low­er­ing the pay­ment,” says Kamenetz. If it does have an eco­nom­ic ben­e­fit for Maine, it has a chance to be a mod­el for others.”

Adam Doster, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times, is a Chica­go-based free­lance writer and for­mer reporter-blog­ger for Progress Illinois.
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