January 30

Maine college affordability bills earn bipartisan pitches

The bills suggest, among other things, attending school for free and paying tuition back over time.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Maine lawmakers from both parties urged the Legislature’s Education Committee on Wednesday to pass two college affordability bills, including studying the idea of students attending college for free and paying back the state with a percentage of their income.

click image to enlarge

Dmitri Onishchuk, a freshman from Oakdale, N.Y., and Daniel Norwood of Acton, a junior, walk through the mall at the University of Maine, in Orono, on a fall afternoon.

2013 Staff File Photo

The so-called “Pay It Forward” model is being explored by more than a dozen states, and Washington has launched a pilot project, according to Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, who sponsored one of the bills. His bill calls for the Legislature to form a study group and come up with a proposal for a pilot project, perhaps testing the model at a single campus, or limiting it to a certain percentage of students.

“Let’s kick the tires a little,” Katz told the committee members at a public hearing Wednesday.

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, has proposed a similar bill to study Pay It Forward and several other college affordability models.

“It’s critical we do this,” Alfond said Wednesday. “This is the issue we should be tackling.”

Alfond’s bill also looks at scholarship programs with incentives for degree completion; tuition guarantees that allow students to pay the same tuition rate for four years while they attend a public institution; and dual enrollment programs, which allow students to attend a community college for three years and then transfer to a university for one year.

Both bills simply suggest that the programs be studied and a recommendation returned to the Legislature.

Across the nation, college tuition has skyrocketed in the last two decades, according to the College Board. The average cost at public colleges, including room and board, has increased 20 percent in the last five years to $18,391. As tuition increases, concern about the amount of student debt graduates carry has escalated.

In Maine, 67 percent of college students graduate with debt, and carry an average debt load of $29,352, according to the Institute of College Success, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. That puts Maine slightly below national figures of 71 percent of students carrying debt at an average of $29,400 per student.

“College debt is strangling my generation,” said Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, a member of the committee who testified in favor of the bills on behalf of the Legislature’s Youth Caucus. “Young Mainers are facing an uphill battle and college debt is a major factor in what is setting our generation back.”

First hatched in Oregon, where the governor last summer directed a commission to study the model, Pay It Forward proposes allowing students the option of attending public two- or four-year colleges, tuition-free, in exchange for paying up to 3 percent of their income for about 20 years into a state fund.

Eliot Cutler, an independent candidate for governor, also spoke at the hearing in favor of the bills, as did representatives from the University of Maine System, the Maine Community College System and the Maine Chamber of Commerce.

“We have to find a way to make post-secondary education more affordable,” Cutler said. “This is a community investment in Maine’s future.”

About two dozen people attended the hearing and no one spoke in opposition. No one from the state Department of Education testified during the hearing.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Paul LePage said the governor had no comment on the college affordability bills at this time, in keeping with the general policy of the governor’s office to not comment until legislation reaches his desk. U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat and candidate for governor, said in a written statement that he supported the bills, adding that he would present his plan to cut college costs for Maine students in coming weeks.

Even advocates acknowledge there are considerable challenges to the Pay it Forward proposal, from finding the startup funds to ensuring proper payments from graduates over a 20-year span.

Katz suggested that a revenue bond or a consortium of banks or financial backers might provide the initial funding.

In Maine, low wages are a factor when considering the Pay It Forward model. For example, four years of tuition at University of Maine, in Orono, is about $33,480. If the idea is to pay back 3 percent over 20 years – with Maine workers earning an average annual wage between $32,000 to $43,000 in that time – the repayment would only amount to about $22,500, almost $11,000 short of the state’s investment in a single student.

Advocates note that the model accounts for a range of low- to high-wage earners paying into the system, and workers with college degrees generally earn more money.

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

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