Maine State Grant Gets Boost In Funding – Officials, Students Say The Impact Will Be Pivotal
Aurora Turmelle, 22, doesn’t know if she would have been able to earn her college degree if it weren’t for the Maine State Grant. She recently graduated from the University of Maine Farmington.
“I'm a low income, first generation college student, so that money made a huge difference for me,” Turmelle says. “If I didn't have that money, I would have been paying more out of pocket, I don't know if I would have been able to afford school in the first place."
Now, Turmelle and other Maine college students are cheering a 66% increase in the annual Maine State Grant award, from $1,500 a year to $2,500.
Students say that extra $1,000 can make a big impact on easing the burden of student loan debt.
“[The increase is] actually really helpful. For my senior year, I won't have to take out any loans because of it,” says Tawnee Roberts, 21. Roberts is also studying at the University of Maine Farmington, pursing a degree in early childhood education.
37-year-old sociology major Joseph Spiller is also glad that he won’t have to take out any loans in his upcoming senior year at the University of Maine at Augusta, or UMA, but had the increase happened sooner, he says, “I would be about $5,000 less in debt than I am right now.”
Turmelle, Roberts and Spiller are among the approximately 12,500 students who receive the Maine State Grant each year. To be considered, students have to show an estimated family contribution of less than $7,000 on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, filing.
“The Maine State Grant makes up some of the gap between what they're getting in federal funding to what their actual costs are. And so with this increase, what it's doing is it's actually reducing a student's reliance on needing to borrow money for an educational investment,” says Jamie Santiago, the Director of Financial Aid at the UMA.
The use of the grant is not limited to tuition and fees. It can also help students cover the cost of their living expenses, including rent, groceries, books, or childcare.
The $10 million increase in state funding for the grant program is coming at a significant time, given the financial challenges for many students over the last year due to the pandemic. According to the Finance Authority of Maine, or FAME, as of June 1, total FAFSA filings are down by 3.5%, and filing for the lowest income students is down by 7.7%.
“So when we think about who's being impacted by the pandemic, [we] definitely see a lot of dependent students not sure what they're going to do, so they're hesitant, but then our lower income students are really feeling more unsure. So the increase in the dollar amount [to the Maine State Grant], and the extension of the [FAFSA] deadline, I think is going to be really critical to helping them get into school this fall,” says Martha Johnston, the education director at FAME, which administers the Maine State Grant.
Johnston says the recent state funding increase came out of the recommendations in the 2014 report from the Commission to Study College Affordability and College Completion. Recently, Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill that will reinstate the commission to further study the affordability gap for Maine students in attending and finishing college.
Spiller says this issue needs more attention. He’s the president of the UMA’s student government, and he says he frequently talks to other students who are worried about money.
“The one thing that's in the forefront of their mind all the time is money. We're in an economically depressed state. We're on our way up, so let's be a little optimistic, but we're talking about a lot of generational poverty here. A lot of people think that they can't go to college. So being able to access a grant, not only just because it's something to help you pay for it, but honestly, it's just nice to know that there's some help out there,” Spiller says.
For Turmelle, the cost of college has been a source of life-long worry. But when she graduated in May, she was both grateful and proud.
“If I didn't have that grant, I would not have been able to finish my degree,” Turmelle says. “I was in middle school, and I was stressing, ‘oh, how am I going to pay for college? I don't know if I'm going to be able to afford it.’ My parents don't know anything about college. It was a lot of stress. And it was just it was like a breath of fresh air [when I graduated], knowing that I did it.”