For decades, high school graduates have been caught between two relentless trends: At a time when an increasing number of the best-paying jobs require some kind of post-secondary education, states have been cutting back on their support for public universities.

As a result, students are paying more for education, and many who graduate have levels of debt that were unknown a generation ago. Debt burden affects what kind of jobs young people can take, where they can afford to live, and even the most personal decisions about when to start a family. Making that debt load manageable would not only be a relief for the people carrying it, it would also help the state by putting the debtors’ effort to more productive use in the economy.

The challenge of student debt requires policy makers to look back at the people who owe more than they can afford at the same time they look ahead to make sure that post-secondary education won’t saddle another generation with too much debt. Two proposals now before the Legislature attempt to attack the problem from both ends and deserve careful consideration by lawmakers.

The first is Gov. Janet Mill’s budget proposal to make a one-time expenditure of surplus funds to help community college students earn a one-year certificate or a two-year associate degree at no cost.

The other would also tap the surplus to relieve up to $40,000 of student debt for people who qualify for a first-time homeowner mortgage program run by the Maine State Housing Authority.

Gov. Mills’ community college proposal was a highlight of  this month’s State of the State address. In-state students in high school graduating classes from 2020 through 2023 who enroll in community college full time could be eligible for the program. An estimated 8,000 students could qualify, at a cost of $20 million. To qualify, students would have to enroll full time and earn 30 credits per year; qualify for in-state tuition or commit to living and working in Maine; and accept all federal and state grants, scholarships, and any other funding sources.


L.D. 1978 would spend $10 million to help people who have already incurred debt. People who buy a home through MaineHousing’s first-time homeowner program could get up to $40,000 in debt  relief spread out over five years. That would change their income-to-debt ratio, enabling the buyers to take out a larger mortgage. The program could enable the return of young Mainers who felt they had to move to other states to make enough money to pay back their loans, and it could be an attractive sweetener for employers trying to recruit workers.

By design, the people who received debt relief under this program would buy a house, work and pay taxes, contributing to communities in ways that repaying federal loans would not.

Neither proposal is perfect, because they both propose spending one-time money to fix a problem that is not going to go away. But that’s no reason to stand back and do nothing.

A pilot program could show the value of dealing with past debt and future costs by making higher education more accessible to Mainers. It could also give the state an edge in the national competition for workers.

The surplus gives state governments a chance to experiment. Policy makers in Maine shouldn’t miss the opportunity.

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