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Maine Will Study Student Loan Debt Burden On College Students And Graduates In The State

Nearly 40% of student loan payers are helping someone else pay off their student loans, a new study found.
Nearly 40% of student loan payers are helping someone else pay off their student loans, a new study found.

A new law will require Maine to study the burden of student loan debt in the state.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill that will reinstate the Commission to Study College Affordability and College Completion, which previously met in 2014. The goal of the commission is to study the affordability gap for Maine students in both attending and finishing college, what financial models best serve non-traditional students, and what the average debt is for students graduating from Maine's colleges and universities. It will also look at the potential impact of no-cost community college programs.

Democratic Sen. Mattie Daughtry of Brunswick, the previous co-chair of the commission and sponsor the latest bill, says the commission will also look at the barriers that exist for students who don't finish their degrees.

"What is the barrier for folks who may have some college coursework, but don't have the credential?" Daughtry says. "They put the time in, they might be paying on the debt, but they're not getting the benefit of finishing their program."

The commission produced a 2014 report, and director of government and community relations for the University of Maine System Sam Warren says many of the recommendations in that report have now finally been realized.

"[The 2014 report] really did have staying power and has really shaped the conversation in the state house and beyond over the past seven years about how we can advance college affordability and completion," Warren says. "For example, thanks to the proposal by Governor Mills and the support of the legislature, our systems are able to hold the line on the cost of tuition for the coming academic year to help families and students as they emerge from the pandemic."

That said, Daughtry says she and other legislators wanted to re-up the commission, "because a lot has changed since 2014."

Warren says a number of the priorities that the University of Maine System have now, in addition to other post-secondary institutions in the state, were not on the mind of the 2014 commission.

"And they are now a really big part of our strategy in moving the needle on college access and affordability," Warren says. "For example, the commission in 2014 really didn't focus on adult learners, but certainly within the University of Maine system, that's about a third of our student population and continuing to grow."

Daughtry says they will also add a high school guidance counselor to the commission’s membership.

“We want to talk to someone who's on the ground, doing this work with our students, and really have their personal experience and their narrative be part of the process, because there's no one single piece of legislation and no one single thing that's going to absolutely be able to reverse student debt. And it really takes a team effort,” Daughtry says.

Maine has the sixth-highest average student debt in the country - with Mainers borrowing an average of more than $33,000. Americans' total student debt amount grew to $1.7 trillion in 2021.

Despite those numbers, Warren says she hopes this next iteration of the commission will help Mainers see that affordable higher education is attainable.

"It really gives us an opportunity to dispel some of the myths that are out there about college affordability, I think people hear the national narrative on student debt and think that this may not be within reach for them," Warren says. "No matter who you are, no matter where you live, there is a path to a meaningful post-secondary degree or credential for you here in the state of Maine."

The commission will need to provide a report on its findings to the Maine Legislature by January 2022.