I recently read an op-ed that advocated for the Free Scholarship Program in Maine to be made permanent (Commentary, Sept. 23). While I agree with some of the sentiments expressed, I would also like to add some context to the current situation.

The author argued that, for the first time, kids who may have otherwise never gone to college are doing so, and suggested that high schoolers who legitimately don’t know what they want to study can still have a pathway forward by at least getting the first two years out of the way.

I can’t say I disagree. As an economics professor at Thomas College, I’ve met students who don’t know what major they want to concentrate in. Some also change majors after two or three years. Career indecision is common.

A survey conducted in 2019 by Ellucian, a software and service provider to higher education institutions, puts that indecision rate around 50%. What was more telling in the survey was that nearly two-thirds of students felt overwhelmed by the major selection process.

Generally, Maine’s community college system can play a significant role in helping students develop their field of interest. However, research has shown the 2+2 system — two years of community college followed by matriculation at a finishing four-year institution — can also be a hindrance to the completion of a four-year degree.

A 2016 Columbia University study showed that labor market and baccalaureate outcomes improve if the transfer system between two- and four-year colleges is well defined and easy to navigate. Therefore, we should measure whether the articulation agreements and transfer process work seamlessly on a system-wide basis — and even with our private colleges — before we continue investing in free tuition.

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Recent reports indicate average enrollment at Maine’s community colleges is up by 18%. I work at a four-year college and I know that any increase in 2+2 enrollments will not make up for the much lower enrollments that four-year colleges currently face.

Since the program’s inception, the University of Maine System and other tuition-driven private institutions have seen recruiting shortfalls and significant drops in enrollment, both of which are now affecting the bottom line. It’s tough to compete against “free.”

In fact, the UMaine System’s total undergraduate enrollment stood at 27,250 in the 2018-2019 academic year. It dropped to 23,964 this past spring, or by about 12%. In-state student enrollment experienced a nearly 21% drop over that same five-year period.

And considering that our K-12 public-school enrollment has been declining for years, there will be less of a pie to slice up in the years ahead. The UMaine System’s response is pending legislation designed to make tuition free there as well.

Then there’s the lack of results. When the Legislature extended the program through the 2025 graduating class, we had not yet seen what the actual results were from prior classes. Did average GPA results and graduation rates go up or down?

There’s the argument that a student with no skin in the game — that is, a personal stake at risk in its outcome — will not be as successful as someone who has to put up at least a portion of their tuition.

I’ll conclude with another unintended consequence that surfaced earlier this year: This program was never intended to benefit out-of-state students. Yes, Maine taxpayers are paying for students and student-athletes from other states who simply move to Maine and establish residency in a dorm room. Their tuition is free immediately. This loophole must be closed by applying the same residency test used by the UMaine System.

So, while I agree with some of the sentiments of the op-ed’s author, we need to measure if what we’re doing is working, and whether it’s economically feasible and fair to taxpayers. I suggest that the advocates for permanent free community college tuition halt their rush to judgement and pair good fiscal management principles with their emotional appeals.


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