AUGUSTA, Maine - Politicians, business leaders, economists and educators agree: The future health of Maine's economy depends, in large part, on growing a younger, more highly educated workforce.
With an eye on this goal, the Legislature last year created a commission to study ways of making college more affordable and boosting the number of people who complete their studies and earn degrees.
The panel came out with its recommendations today in Augusta. We'll hear more about the commission's work and its suggestions in a moment. First, though, meet one Erica Frederick-Rock. She's the kind of student who would benefit from many of the panel's recommendations. She's a senior at the University of Maine at Augusta, a biology major, and an athlete.
"I actually got home last night at 11:30 because I'm on the UMA basketball team as a 36-year-old," she says. "And I played 36 minutes last night. So I'm a little sore today as well."
Frederick-Rock's college journey began after she graduated from Cony High School in Augusta. She went to the University of Hartford, in Connecticut, thinking she might one day go into law or public policy.
But Frederick-Rock was raised by a single father with limited means. So, after one semester, she transferred to UMaine-Orono, where the tuition was cheaper. But at the end of the year, Frederick-Rock had a change of heart.
"I sat down and really thought about what I wanted to do. And realized I really didn't know, at 19, what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and I didn't want to have my father pay for me not knowing," she says. "So I joined the military."
The idea was to support herself, and eventually get a degree. But Frederick-Rock got out of the service before qualifying for the G.I. Bill. She worked for Bank of America for a while in Vermont and went to school part-time for business, before ultimately deciding to pursue a career in health care.
Frederick-Rock enrolled, full-time, at UMA three years ago and is studying biology. "So I work 20 hours a week, and I'm a teaching assistant for two professors on campus to help cover the cost of a lot of things. I'm maxed out right now on student loans."
She's $50,000 in debt, Fredrick-Rock says, and facing the prospect of having to pay, out of pocket, for the masters degree in public health that will allow her to make the kind of money she'll need to make to pay down all that debt.
"College debt is a major burden in what's setting our generation, and our state, back," says state Rep. Mattie Daughtry, a Brunswick Democrat and co-chair of the Commission to Study College Affordability and College Completion.
The panel, made up of lawmakers and educators, met six times between last August and November. In its final report, the commission makes 10 recommedations to encourage more Mainers to compete college degrees, and to be able to do so affordably.
One suggestion in the Legislature to boost the amount of money students can get under the Maine State Grant Program from $1,000 to $2,500 per year. Daughtry says this change is long overdue.
"The grant has sort have been stagnated around a $1,000 since 1992," Daughtry says. "In 1992, that helped pay for almost your entire community college tuition. Now, for some majors, it barely covers one text book."
The commission also wants the Maine Maritime Academy, University of Maine and Community College System boards to consider adopting suggestions from a study by the group Complete College America. It's called the "Game Changers" report, and it recommends tying public funding for state universities to performance measures, not just enrollment. It suggests that states give students incentives to attend college full time and that state schools offer so-called "gateway courses" to freshmen who need remediation at the start of their college careers.
The Legislature's Education and Cultural Affaris Committee spent the afternoon questioning the researchers who prepared the report. In the coming months, lawmakers will have to work with each other and the state's educational institutions to figure out which strategies to go forward with.