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Maine Bill: Matching Income Prospects with College Debt Load
02/10/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Nearly 70 percent of Maine college grads now carry an average of $30,000 in student loan debt, prompting some of them to reassess their assumptions about the economics of the workforce. One Maine lawmaker has proposed a so-called "Know Before You Go" bill that he says is designed to help prospective students review updated financial and employment information on a state Web site before they chose their courses. A.J. Higgins has more.

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It's a problem that Rep. Seth Berry has heard before: Too many Maine students borrow for college without any inkling about how to repay their loans after graduation. The four-term Bowdoinham Democrat and House majority leader says today's graduates need to ask themselves some pivotal questions beginning in their freshman year.

"If I graduate on time, what are the chances I will find a job?" Berry said. "How much will I pay per month - for how long - on my student loans? And importantly, with this degree, can I expect to earn enough per month to pay off all those loans - as well as my other bills?"

Berry told members of the Legislature's Committee on Maine's Workforce and Economic Future that his bill would allow students to access a Web site to see what jobs are available in Maine and what they pay. They would also be able to see the real long-term costs of their student loans.

Under LD 1746, the Web site would be similar to those offered in other states by the nonprofit Berry says his Know Before You Go Act would also create a 24-member commission charged with keeping the site loaded with the kind of detailed job and loan cost information students need to make informed choices.

The panel would also have another important function. "The commission will need to work on how to integrate the new Web site and information into our secondary schools," Berry said. "They'll need to identify an ongoing funding method for the new Web site and data system. We are ready to roll it out, thanks to a federal grant, but we're not ready to sustain it. So that will be one of their first and most important tasks."

"The information and outreach that would come from this bill would be a significant resource for all Maine students," said Megan Phelps.

Phelps told members of the legislative panel that upon graduation from high school, she and her parents looked at a number of colleges and finally opted for one of the most expensive schools in Maine: Bowdoin College, where Phelps says scholarships and a generous student aid package had to be augmented by significant amounts of student loans.

"But Bowdoin's excellent student aid, as well as scholarships and a significant amount of student loans allowed us to make up the difference," Phelps said. "We chose to take that risk, assuming that a Bowdoin degree would provide higher returns in the long run. I can definitely attest to the fact that I had no idea how hard it was going to be. I am on a first-name basis with the bursar. I get personal e-mails from her at least once a semester asking me, 'Megan, your payments are behind schedule.' Or, 'Megan, you need to update your payment plan.'"

Berry's bill has bipartisan support and broad backing from the state's educational community, including Maine Maritime Academy, the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System.

John Doerr, Maine's former commissioner of labor, also spoke in favor of the bill, telling lawmakers that the days when students can enter college with only a vague notion of what they will study and how they will pay back their loans are long gone.

"We can no longer afford to sleepwalk in the future, or to sort of stumble our way into a job or a career," Doerr said. "We've got to make deliberate choices, and I think this is about providing the data and providing the support to help people make deliberate choices."

The bill did receive one written expression of opposition from the Maine Department of Labor, which is among those who question the need for a 24-member Know Before You Go Commission. Sponsor Seth Berry says the size and make-up of the commission is open for discussion.


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