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Maine Lawmakers Seek Ways to Lower Student Loan Debt
01/29/2014   Reported By: Jay Field

The average college senior in Maine now graduates with more than $29,000 in student loan debt, according to the California-based Institute for College Access and Success. It's a burden that can make it difficult for many graduates to get a head start on the road to financial security. In Augusta today, lawmakers heard public testimony on two bills that would study and experiment with ways of making tuition costs more manageable. Jay Field has more.

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Democrat Justin Alfond, the Maine Senate President, is sponsoring one of the bills. Introducing the measure before the Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, Alfond called rising student debt a bipartisan problem that lawmakers must address.

"College is expensive," he said. "It's costing our students more, each year, and it's putting a financial burden on students and their families.

Alfond says all this financial pressure and debt is fueling another, equally worriesome, problem. "This trend of rising college costs is preventing many students, many Maine students, from starting and completing their college degrees."

And doing that at a time, Alfond told the committee, when study after study shows how important a college education is to an individual's earning potential and to Maine's economy. "And that is why this issue, and this bill, is more than just about debt. It's also about degree completion," he said.

LD 1703, Alfond's bill, offers a nine-part strategy to make headway on the twin challenges. One provision would offer students a full scholarship for their fourth and final year at a public university, as long as they agree to work in Maine for a period of time after they graduate. Another plank would guarantee students enrolled in community colleges and the University of Maine System the same tuition for each of their four years in college.

"Freezing tuition at the incoming students' rate - that would be very problematic on several levels," said John Fitzsimmons, the president of Maine's Community College System.

Fitzsimmons agrees with the goals of Alfond's bill. But a few of the provisions, he says, would create problems for community colleges at a time of unprecedented growth. Just last week, Fitzimmons noted, the system learned that nearly $600,000 would be cut from its budget.

Fitzsimmons says if the system were to raise tuition and then freeze it, that would put more of the burden on incoming freshmen. "It would be, at minimum, double, if not triple, the tutition of incoming people to make up for that loss," he said. "So that would be problematic."

Fitzsimmons also worries about a proposal to tie annual funding from Augusta for public universities to performance measures such as graduation rates. He says that will make it difficult for the system to follow through on its commitment to be the low-cost college option in Maine.

"Fifty-six percent of our students are taking remediation," Fitzsimmons said. "So we're taking students who are poor and need remediation, and the next outcome is, 'How many did you graduate?' What does that lead you to do as an administrator? You take a tack that says, 'I only want the best students and the students who have the money!'"

One idea, though, elicited widespread enthusiasm. "From 3,000 miles away, in Oregon, comes a creative and out-of-the-box strategy. It's called Pay It Forward," said state Sen. Roger Katz, an Augusta Republican.

Katz is sponsoring a second bill that asks the state's public universities to study the Oregon pilot program. Pay It Forward works a little like Social Security in reverse. Students attend public universities for free. In return, they're asked to pay the university or community college system a fixed percentage of their salary, over the course of their working life.

Alfond's bill calls for moving ahead with a Pay It Forward pilot in Maine. Katz says the idea, while promising, merits careful study first. "Obviously, this idea is not without significant challenges and questions," he said. "In particular, how are the up front costs going to be paid to get the program up and running?"

Supporters of Pay It Forward say one way would be to fund start-up costs through bonds or foundation grants. It's just one of the details educators in Maine will have to look at, if the Legislature goes ahead an approves Katz's bill.


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