In Maine, the demographic math is against us, and nowhere is that fact more apparent than in our schools — we simply don’t have enough high school graduates, or enough high school graduates going onto college, or enough college students earning a degree.

And for every student we lose along the way, the situation gets more dire — our workforce gets weaker, our state more poor, and an individual less likely to succeed in an economy that increasingly requires post-secondary education. Maine must do more to keep students in that educational pipeline, for its colleges and universities, its economy, and for the students themselves.

EARLY COLLEGE GROWS

One way is through early exposure to college-level courses. With the support of Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature, opportunities for early college have grown significantly, and evidence suggests Maine will benefit.

Early college comes in a number of forms, with classes delivered through high schools, online, or at one of the state’s public or private colleges and universities.

The University of Maine System offers classes through each of these avenues, and has increased enrollment from 700 students to 2,500 from more than 100 high schools in just four years, providing a total of 12,000 credit hours at little to no cost to students.

In one particularly creative program, Bridge Year, created by the LePage administration, cohorts of students at a particular high school can earn up to 25 credits working with specially trained teachers.

Hundreds of students take advantage of the early college program through the Maine Community College System too, and some high schools have partnered with private colleges; about half the students at Maranacook High School in Readfield take classes through Thomas College in Waterville, for instance.

EDUCATED WORKERS NEEDED

Whatever form the classes take, students benefit.

Early college courses challenge students who have mastered high school subjects, and give them a head start on college credits, lowering the cost of a degree, even going so far as turning four years of costly college work into three.

They also show students who may feel intimidated by the prospect of attending college that they can do the work.

That’s important. For every 100 Maine students who start the ninth grade, 86 graduate, according to Educate Maine. That’s not bad.

However, of those 86, just 50 enroll in a two- or four-year college within one year of graduation.

Some of that is financial, but some of it is aspirational, particularly for students who come from families without a college graduate, and who feel that if their parents couldn’t do it, maybe they won’t be able to, either.

We can’t afford to undereducate these students.

Maine is expected to lose 15 percent of its age 24-65 population by 2034, and unless every student who can earn a degree does so, the state workforce will absolutely collapse.

And at a time when 60 percent of new jobs will require some form of post-secondary degree, Mainers without one will be at a disadvantage.

ENCOURAGING RESULTS

But there’s hope in early college. A study of 690 students in early college classes in 2006-07, 72 percent of whom came from families without a college-graduate parent, found that 80 percent were enrolled in college within a year, compared with 60 percent for other students at their schools. The students had higher college aspirations after taking the courses than before, too.

Those and other results are enough to continue to expand early college. The supplemental budget recently passed by the Legislature contained $2 million for the University of Maine System’s programs, and Gov. LePage’s proposal for the next biennium includes $500,000 for each year.

Legislators should make sure the funding survives the negotiation process — it was one of three priorities listed by Chancellor James Page in a recent address to the Legislature.

The work doesn’t end there, of course. First off, the outcomes for these nascent programs must be tracked to make sure that they are working — in the next few years there will be enough data to provide some idea.

And getting students to college is just the first step. While it’s bad enough that only 50 out of every 100 Maine ninth-graders go on to college, just 33 of those ninth-graders will earn a degree. That speaks to the need for additional financial and academic supports for those students once they reach college.

That won’t stop the impeding crisis — Maine also has to attract immigrants and out-of-state Americans in order to grow its population.

But we should also commit to making the most of our homegrown students, and robust early college programs are a good start.