Goodbye summer. Hello college and paying for it.

Late August is always a busy, bittersweet time.

Summer is ending and school is starting.

Two months from now, costumed children will come knocking, shouting “Trick or treat.” Two months ago, high schools sent another crop of young people off to jobs, the military, technical school and college.

For the first time in 25 years, my household will have no child at home to wake up or wake us. Our youngest has gone off to college, launched into a new, exciting phase of life, leaving us without a plate to fill (and fill and fill) and only us to mow the lawn.

The last few months felt like an in-between time. Our teenager had work to get to and Katahdin to climb (twice) and a schedule that didn’t match up with the rest of the family’s. He drove more than ever before, more independent (good) but still a relatively inexperienced driver behind the wheel (scary).

(Those fears were heightened by the tragic accident earlier this month on Route 1A that killed our daughter’s vivacious high school friend, Roxanne Papken, her friend Phillip Carter, and Richard Olson, the driver of the car who hit them. Roxanne had been an English major at the University of Maine who was always recommending something good to read, often sharing a volume. When you next pick up a novel, think of Roxanne.)

Students first attending and returning to college bring their own experiences. Some have loved ones with severe illnesses or a parent out of work. Others have lives of joy and support. Most are somewhere in-between.

There are students with the sort of excellent preparation my children got in the Bangor schools. And there are some whose was not as good (but Gov. Paul LePage’s claim that out-of-state institutions require Maine high school seniors to take a special admissions test just isn’t true).

Most will have issues paying for college. Maine student debt, held by 67 percent of college graduates, averages nearly $30,000.

Student debt makes it harder for graduates to establish themselves and hurts our society and economy.

According to the bond rating agency Standard and Poors, the “education gap is a main reason for the growing income divide, and it affects both wages and net worth.” Growing income inequality stifles economic growth and makes it harder for low income people to move up.

There are schools with remarkably generous financial aid but they are the hardest to get into and their students are disproportionately from educated, high-income families.

Keeping down and reducing the cost of attendance will make the biggest difference for people from families without much money to pay college bills. They may even shy away from college because of its cost and the prospect of debt. However, people without education beyond high school earn less than those with a two or four year degree.

Today public higher education is less well funded than before. At the University of Maine, state appropriations used to cover about two-thirds of higher education costs but now fund around a third. More state support will only come if taxpayers think the money is focused on classrooms, not administration.

What do Maine’s gubernatorial candidates want to do?

Eliot Cutler supports a “pay it forward” plan, allowing graduates to pay back loans over a long period of time. An analysis by the Century Foundation finds this approach creates substantial financial burdens for states and doesn’t do much for students. Oregon, the source of the idea, recently decided not to implement it statewide, opting to put its funds into “a huge expansion of need-based financial aid and bolstering community college and university operations.”

Gov. LePage’s campaign web page mentions his 2010 plan of a fifth year of high school for college credit but, as the Press Herald noted, “it was not part of the package of education reforms that LePage pushed in 2012.” Just a pilot program was tried.

Rep. Mike Michaud would reduce students’ costs by holding public university tuition steady for four years and having the state cover tuition for the second year. That’s more generous than what students get now but less comprehensive than the aid certain students receive in Tennessee and Texas.

This year, Halloween decorations will mix with campaign lawn signs. It’s up to us to choose whether our students get a trick or a treat.


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.