Education

Maine cannot afford ‘debt-free’ college

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This session, lawmakers in the Maine Legislature are considering a pair of bills that aim to increase access to higher education in Maine by spending tens of millions of dollars at the state level to further subsidize students’ postsecondary schooling. One bill, LD 461, would appropriate $90 million in one-time funds over the biennium to the Finance Authority of Maine to provide additional assistance to students under the Maine State Grant Program.

The other, LD 1445, seeks to provide debt-free college to students who are enrolled at least part-time at a public college or university in Maine. The Finance Authority of Maine would be tasked with providing grants to every Maine student eligible for the program, and the grants must cover all costs associated with schooling – tuition, room and board, books, supplies and other fees.

While the goal of making education more affordable for Maine families is certainly laudable, these bills double down on what makes college expensive in the first place and would create a huge financial burden for taxpayers in the state. Both measures would cost Maine taxpayers millions annually, and neither measure outlines a funding source to finance these proposals.

LD 461 sends an additional $90 million to the Finance Authority of Maine to ensure students are able to attend a Maine college or university. For one, taxpayers should not be responsible for sending students to an institution of higher education. Going to college is a conscious choice made by students and parents based on a student’s interests and ambitions. For some, higher education may not be the pathway to prosperity, and therefore should remain responsible for the cost of tuition.

LD 1445 is misguided because it would saddle taxpayers with exorbitant costs that would likely require future tax increases. Because most Mainers would be eligible to receive a “debt-free” education under the bill, the price tag of LD 1445 is likely to exceed the $90 million cost of LD 461.

To be eligible for “debt-free educational opportunities” under LD 1445, an individual must have a high school diploma, their GED, or equivalent; be enrolled or accepted for enrollment as an undergraduate; have applied for the grant; and be a resident of Maine for a minimum of one year.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 92 percent of Mainers are high school graduates or have reached higher levels of educational achievement. Without taking other aid into account, this program could cost Mainers over $340 million based on current in-state student enrollment in the University of Maine System and the average cost of in-state tuition. This bill would place the financial burden of paying for student debt on the backs of hardworking men and women in our state regardless of whether they choose to attend college themselves.

Not only would these bills be costly, but they would provide an education for students that may not be able to find a job in Maine after graduating. According to the Maine Department of Labor, only 76 percent of graduates from Maine institutions of higher learning found jobs within the state. Of those individuals, only 46 percent were employed the entire year after graduation. While this dataset was published in 2014, these results illustrate that state subsidization of student tuition is unlikely to translate to meaningful employment opportunities for graduates.

LDs 461 and 1445 would subsidize tuition for Maine students without ensuring they complete their degree programs. Only 56 percent of first-time, full-time Maine college students complete their degree. Both of these bills would provide tuition to Maine students regardless of whether they finish their schooling. Is the state prepared to subsidize tuition when over 40 percent of students do not finish their degrees at Maine’s postsecondary schools? This would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.

People should pursue a degree if they believe it will benefit them in their pursuit of a career. However, college may not be a practical move for everyone, particularly if a student does not know what career they are interested in pursuing.

To be frank, there’s really no such thing as debt-free college. The state may find a way to remove the individual burden of paying for higher education, but one way or another, someone is going to have to foot the bill for these services because they simply aren’t free.

About Adam Crepeau

Adam Crepeau serves as a policy analyst at The Maine Heritage Policy Center. He can be reached at acrepeau@mainepolicy.org.

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