When Maine voters head to the polls in November, they won't just be choosing candidates. They'll also consider a number of infrastructure bonds, including nearly $50 million in spending for the state's university system. University officials are calling it a "workforce bond" that will be an important piece of the effort to address Maine's ongoing labor shortage.
Lian Oyerbides is a senior at the University of Maine at Augusta. She is also a mom who spent years working for a local Head Start program educating young children. In 2014, her position was cut.
“That was a scary thought. What am I going to do?" she says. "Medical? Legal? I decided to go to the legal field. So I came here and registered for justice studies."
She soon found that navigating through this new educational system wasn't easy — first, there were financial aid forms.
"Filing FAFSA (The Free Application for Federal Student Aid) itself, I had to go in there multiple times because of certain issues," she says. "They helped me grow through each step, and contacted them on my behalf, for certain documents."
In addition, English isn't Oyerbides' first language, so she has spent hours every week at the school's writing center. Now she is close to getting her diploma and entering law school. But it's required her to take as many as six courses a semester while working multiple jobs and taking care of her son.
"Until last semester, if I got four hours of sleep a day, that's a good day!" she says.
Students like Oyerbides are more the norm at UMA than the exception. Officials say the average student age is 33. Many are also the first in their family to attend college.
"It is not inexpensive to serve this population of students," says UMA President Rebecca Wyke. "And I don't think people always understand that."
Wyke says the school uses online courses and satellite locations to reach students in their own communities, from Rumford to Rockland. But even with support, fewer than a quarter of full-time students graduate from the university within six years.
"Larger institutions who have more traditional student bases tend to be better funded than the students, who are really focused on working with those individuals, who may need a little extra assistance to get through," she says.
It's part of why Wyke and other university officials support Question 4, a statewide ballot referendum to borrow $49 million for infrastructure improvements across the university system.
At the University of Maine at Augusta, the bond would fund the creation of a consolidated student support center that would bring some services like enrollment, academic advising and financial aid under one roof. Officials says the center would replace existing offices that are small, cramped and spread out, making it difficult for students to navigate the layers of paperwork and administration.
"So that students know, no matter what my issue is, if I go to this location, there's going to be someone there who can support me as I'm working my way through the experience," Wyke says.
Across the entire system, Chancellor James Page describes the ballot measure as a "workforce" bond to address Maine's labor shortage, brought about by impending retirements and the state's aging demographics.
"In just about every professional area you can think of, the state is going to need new workers. More trained workers," Page says. "People who really want to build their professional careers in the state, throughout, whether it's in in Portland or rural Maine."
Page says much of the bond money would be targeted at boosting the number of graduates in specific majors, such as education and engineering. About a quarter of the money, he says, would go towards nursing — expanding lab spaces, classrooms and simulators. Page says it comes at a time when Maine could see an anticipated shortage of more than 3,000 nurses by 2025, which could hit rural areas particularly hard.
"We're the one institution that has the statewide mandate, that can deliver,” Page says. “That has the responsibilities and the skills and capacities to deliver these training and educational opportunities for people.”
Historically, Maine voters have tended to support infrastructure bonds, but not always. In 2012, voters narrowly turned down an $11 million higher education bond. The very next year, however, they approved $15.5 million dollars for the university system.
On this year’s ballot, there are three other bond proposals for transportation, wastewater infrastructure, and the state's community college system. The bond package totals $200 million.
Question 4 has the backing of groups, including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. And a political action committee founded by the University of Maine Alumni Association has already spent more than more than $150,000 to advocate for the ballot question. That effort includes funding for two TV ads.
Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.