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Aroostook County Project Studies How To Get Students To College — And Keep Them There

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
The entrance to East Grand School, near the border of Washington and Aroostook Counties.

More students in Maine are graduating from high school than ever before — nearly 87 percent last year. And most enroll in college. Yet for many students, particularly those from small, rural schools, staying in college can be a challenge. A new program in Aroostook County is looking into why some rural students may struggle in college and trying to find ways to keep them in school.

Senior Jordan Cowger walks along the perimeter of the East Grand School, nestled into the trees of Danforth, Maine. The school is located near the border of Aroostook and Washington Counties, and it is tiny at fewer than 150 students from preschool through twelfth grade.

"I started here as part of the Head Start program when I was three,” Cowger says. “And so now I'm 16, entering senior year. And, it's just been all right here."

Cowger says it’s also a very small community. Everyone knows everyone. Both her parents, and other relatives, all have deep roots here.

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
East Grand School senior Jordan Cowger works on college paperwork with her mother, Ruth Ann Cowger, the guidance director for the school.

"I think people kind of expect you to stay here,” Cowger says. :But that's because we have such a multi-generational kind of culture. My great grandmother grew up here, and still lives here, and has spent her whole life on the same road."

So as Cowger and her fellow seniors think about their plans after high school next year, some are apprehensive about leaving this familiar, tight-knit atmosphere. And it's one of the reasons why more than 40 percent of Maine students entering public colleges don't finish. This figure is even more dramatic in some rural communities.

"The crux of the matter is, we really haven't moved the ball on that number of kids that move from high school to college,” says coach Chris Young. “We really haven't been able to make a significant change in that over 10 years."

Young is a coach with GEAR UP Maine, a group that works with schools across rural Maine to help students get to college and stay there. Young was brought on about two years ago when the organization began a research project across six schools in Aroostook County. It was designed to find out why some of these students, who may have limited resources or be the first in their family to go to college, drop out — some before even getting to campus in the fall.

"How can we get students there? And then once they're there, can we continue to provide support that students need to navigate those first couple of weeks on campus? That whole first semester," Young says.

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
Chris Young texts a student on his phone by his car. Young is a coach with GEAR UP Maine, and is part of an effort to study how to keep students from Aroostook County in college.

To do it, Young serves as a kind of counselor for a few dozen students across a large swath of the state. He starts in high school, then keeps working with them through their first year of college, when they can connect with other forms of support at the university level. After two years on the job, Young says he's seen that one of the biggest barriers to getting to college, and sticking with it isn't the difficulty of the academics.

"It's the financial aid, it's the paying the bill, it's the getting a work study job, it's getting the textbooks, it's all this auxiliary stuff, outside of sitting in the classroom and listening to the teacher and passing the class," he says.

The hope for the GEAR UP program, which is funded by a federal grant, is that Young can be a college navigator that students already know and trust before they get on campus. He visits colleges and high schools, and he texts students with problem-solving advice.

But GEAR UP sometimes offers direct financial help, as well. Program Director Mary Callan says something as simple as a car repair can prompt a student to drop out. So the organization offers students small amounts of money when needed to help them get through financial bumps in the road.

"And it may be $60 to replace a tire, you know. That's it. Well, that's a shame, if they have a flat, and they can't commute to their community college because they have a flat tire, and they don't have the 60 bucks to replace a tire," she says. "So we are definitely positioning ourselves for that."

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
East Grand School Senior Jordan Cowger works on college paperwork with her mother, Ruth Ann Cowger, the guidance director for the school.

And beyond the financial challenges, some students from rural communities like Danforth have a hard time adjusting to the culture of a large, public university.

"I walked to class one day, and I saw 200 people walking up and down, and I didn't know any of them. And that's so different for me,” says Brady McEwen. “It was, like, a culture shock. Like, I wasn't ready for that kind of thing.”

When McEwen graduated from East Grand School two years ago and arrived at the University of Maine at Orono, he was just 17 years old and overwhelmed by the thousands of other students. He left for the University of Maine at Presque Isle. But then this summer, he decided to return to Orono in the fall to pursue his studies. He wants to go to law school.

McEwen says he feels more socially ready for college now, and that having a trusted coach to visit and guide him through the process has been a relief.

"It was really nice,” says McEwen. “He talked about how we were doing. Like how we were adjusting to our roommate. How everything was going for us...And it made everything a little bit more smooth. The transition. And I was a lot more comfortable.”

This is the final year of the GEAR UP pilot project in Aroostook County, but the organization is set to launch a similar program statewide, for about 500 students, next year.

Originally published 3:44 p.m. August 16, 2019