The benefits of having a four-year degree are well known. Compared to people without one, those who have a bachelor’s degree make more money and have a greater chance of moving up the socioeconomic ladder.
And with the global marketplace demanding more (and more-skilled) workers, boosting Maine residents’ educational attainment is critical to the state’s attracting and keeping companies that provide well-paying jobs.
So both the Maine economy and the tens of thousands of Mainers with no college degree stand to benefit from the University of Maine System’s effort to break down one major barrier to higher education: lack of money. Residents who have some college experience but no four-year diploma now can qualify for a new scholarship worth up to $4,000 per year. The program, which incorporates strategies with a track record of effectiveness, holds a lot of promise as a resource for people returning to college.
An estimated 230,000 adults in Maine have completed some college courses but have no degree, according to a UMaine System study. They have to pay back their student loans because they aren’t enrolled in classes, a challenge that’s compounded because they have higher unemployment rates and lower median incomes than their peers who graduated.
Maine’s new Adult Degree Completion Scholarship Fund is a well-grounded effort to draw former students back to school. The program provides up to four years of aid toward finishing a bachelor’s degree at one of the university system’s seven campuses, recognizing that working adults with many responsibilities may not have the time to take more than one or two classes a semester.
The scholarship is also set up to provide help navigating the system. One person at each university and satellite campus is designated to answer questions about choosing a major, applying for financial aid and registering for courses. Nevada’s public universities, which pioneered the so-called “concierge model,” have found that it offers a support network and decreases red tape.
Of course, no program can eliminate all the obstacles faced by returning students. Adults who go back to school will be pursuing their degrees while leading busy lives that include family, work and community obligations. It’s a balancing act.
Another issue — how the scholarship will be funded — raises public policy concerns. The $1 million scholarship is funded with annual revenue from the state’s portion of proceeds from the Bangor and Oxford casinos, along with a one-time, $500,000 legislative appropriation last year. Tying an ongoing program to an unstable source of revenue presents a risk, and there should be a backup plan in case of a shortfall.
Adults with some college experience but no degree have shown that they’re ready and able to do the work to get this essential credential. The university system has carefully crafted incentives to students to complete their education — and if Maine wants the program to work, the state should ensure a workable fiscal framework is in place.