For the past four years, in a series of columns, I’ve been tracking the debt burden placed on Maine college students. In 2009, we were fourth in the nation in student burden. Last year, we were second.

Well, congratulations, Maine, this year we’re No. 1.

Student burden is measured by comparing the average debt load of graduating students (in this case, 2010 numbers provided by the Project on Student Debt) with state-specific median income information from the U.S. Census bureau.

Thanks to our student’s huge debt load (the second highest in the country) and relatively low median income (which comes with being a mostly rural state and is usually mitigated by a relatively low cost of living), this year we surpassed perennially high-debt states such as Alabama (No. 2 this year) and Mississippi (last year’s No. 1) to hit the top of the chart.

Across all graduates at all institutions measured, the average debt load was $29,983.

Some might think that these numbers are driven in part by the tuition at Maine’s world-class, private liberal arts colleges, but in fact the opposite is true. Likely because of increased family financial resources, students graduating from Bates College in Lewiston, for instance, owed an average of $18,699, with only 36 percent owing anything at all.

At the University of Southern Maine, on the other hand, 85 percent of students graduated with debt.

Tuition in 2010 at public universities in Maine is about 75 percent higher than it was in 2005. Over the same period of time, state outlays have increased by barely more than 2 percent and has been cut more times than it has been increased.

In the coming year, post-secondary education has at least escaped the deep cuts that Gov. Paul LePage has slated for other areas, but tuition is still rising for out-of-state students by almost 5 percent. Not a smart idea, considering that we need to attract and retain educated young people to stave off demographic winter.

I believe that the lack of investment in higher education and in Maine’s young people is the greatest unrecognized threat to our state. It’s ignored by politicians because it doesn’t have the immediate effects of an issue such as the economic recession. And current students, graduates repaying their loans and the tens of thousands of Maine children and families that give up on school for financial reasons don’t have the organization and lobbying power of even Maine’s whoopie pie industry.

Can you imagine if taxes or fees had gone up by 75 percent over a similar period in some other area of state authority? I guarantee you would have heard more about it.

The debts we saddle young Mainers with aren’t just wrong, they’re counter-productive. We need new graduates to start businesses and buy homes, not live in poverty or leave the state.

Some programs, both state and federal, are attempting to ameliorate this burden. In Maine, the Opportunity Maine program offers tax credits to certain students who have completed an education at a Maine university. At the federal level, recent rate cuts and loan consolidation opportunities are helping those who have federal loans.

These are small steps in the right direction, and we should be sure not to go backward by repealing them or letting them lapse. For instance, Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins should support President Barack Obama’s attempt to prevent student loan rates from doubling. The higher rates would affect more than 34,000 Mainers.

We also should thoroughly examine the Opportunity Maine program and see who uses it and how it can be made better.

Bback-end measures, however, aren’t enough. High costs and high debt burdens don’t just hurt those who go to college, they also prevent many Mainers from attending in the first place. Perhaps that’s why the National Center for Education Statistics shows Maine in the bottom quartile of states, based on the percentage of high school graduates who enroll in post-secondary education.

The way to fix the problem is to increase state investment and decrease the sticker price of a college education in Maine. Study after study has shown that making that investment in young people and our education infrastructure is one of the absolutely best things we can do to grow our economy and tax base.

That kind of investment likely won’t happen, however, until young people, college students and those paying student debts recognize that the deck is increasingly being stacked against them and begin to work together to advocate for a better deal.

Until then, we’ll still be No. 1.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes the Tipping Point blog on Maine politics at DownEast.com, his own blog at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine People’s Resource Center. He’s @miketipping on Twitter. Email to [email protected]