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Maine Commission Gets Earful About College Costs

AUGUSTA, Maine - A state commission looking at the high cost of higher education, and the barriers to completing a degree program, reached out today to hear from current students about the costs of attending college. The panel got an earful about increasing costs and hidden expenses that are typically overlooked.


The state Commission on College Affordability and College Completion is charged with developing recommendations to help students access higher education. These include traditional students going to college right out of high school and non-traditional students who may already have families to support while working on a degree.

It costs more than $23,000 a year to go to the University of Maine. Private colleges are a lot more. And students testifying before the panel said estimates often don’t include basic essentials.

Danielle Wadsworth is a student at the University of Maine at Augusta, where she says she rents one science text book for $85 a semester. The book costs $225 new, but then she's also hit with the cost of accessing online supplements, and that’s another $90. "And I have to pay for those as well," Wadsworth said. "Those aren’t calculated in the cost of the class,  they are in addition to."

And if students do not have health insurance, they must buy it through the school. Wadsworth says the way student aid is computed does not realistically estimate what it costs to live as well as go to school, particularly for non-traditional students. Her comments drew praise from Community College President John Fitzsimmons. "Everybody goes off what the tuition is and fees are to go through college, and you talk about the second part, which is what you need to survive on," Fitzsimmons said.

Fitzsimmons is critical of the federal application for student aid form, or FAFSA, saying it expects families to contribute too much of their income to help a student and does not recognize the real problems of non-traditional students who are working and often have a family to support. The forms are used to determine both grant amounts and student loan availability, but they don't account for general cost-of-living expenses.

Connor Thomas, a student at Maine Maritime Academy, says traditional students like him often do not know what career options they face and the costs of pursuing that career. "In high school, you’re thrown from you having to raise your hand to go to the bathroom to turn 18, and make all your life decisions and figure out where you are going to college," he said. "And it’s a little overwhelming."

Those decisions can mean a lot of debt in a career that does not have the earning potential to pay off the debt and raise a family. For example, first year teachers make about $33,000 a year in Maine, but the average debt for all 2012 college graduates was just over $29,000. With low average pay and high average debt, many Maine students are leaving the state for work.

Rep. Matt Pouilot is a Republican from Augusta who serves on the Commission. "We have to do something to give students an incentive to want to stay here, or if they go away and discover themselves, to come back," Pouilot said.

Another group created by the Legislature is hoping to develop better information for students to decide a career path that works for them. Bowdoinham Democratic state Rep. Seth Berry co-chairs the state Education Employment Outcomes task force.

"You really need to have both pieces of the puzzle, though:  What it will cost me and what will I be earning in order to make an informed choice," Berry said. "This is called the 'Know Before You Go' task force because we want to make sure young people have that information before them before they go on to higher education."

Berry’s group got the first look at a new state database that shows what graduates of the University of Maine System, the Community College System and Maine Maritime Academy are being paid in their first year after college. The hope is that will be expanded to include private college and university graduates and measure earnings over a longer period.

Both groups are expected to make recommendations to the next Legislature on how to address the problem of making higher education more affordable and achievable for Mainers.