Down East 2013 ©
In a recent column, I wrote that Maine was sixth in the nation in the financial burden we place on students in higher education, based on a study conducted in 2006.
Since then, I've received some education myself. It turns out we're actually fourth.
If you take the average debt incurred by a student obtaining a four-year degree at a public institution in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia last year (for Maine the average is $23,792) and compare it to their 2008 median household income (Maine's is $46,581), you find that Maine is the fourth least affordable jurisdiction, behind only Alabama, Iowa and Mississippi.
Maybe this financial burden is one of the reasons why new figures out this week  show Maine to be one of only three states in the nation with a shrinking population, an occurrence that the senior economist at the Maine State Planning Office says was caused by "domestic outmigration."
The Opportunity Maine program, which gives Maine graduates tax rebates if they stay and work in Maine, was touted as the solution to this problem when it was passed by an overwhelming margin in the legislature in 2007. Mainers graduating in the past year have been eligible for the program and I hope its effects are being tracked closely to see how well it succeeds in retaining graduates who might otherwise leave the state.
Even if Opportunity Maine works in exactly the ways it was intended, however, it won't be a panacea for our students or our economy. Post-secondary education and its relationship with economic development is an incredibly complicated area of public policy and no one has all the answers.
Education is the silver bullet, but we haven't yet determined the right weapon to shoot it from.
What it will take to make higher education work for Maine is a dedication to experimentation and a willingness to evaluate and improve government policy – a long-term, results-based approach.
What would it take to make this happen? A student interest group would be a good start.
An interest group focused on a particular area of policy can be an incredibly powerful force. No government action is take in the area of natural resources and outdoor recreation in our state without the close scrutiny of the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine. This interest group has an intimate relationship with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and has a strong voice in the state legislature. SAM has a say in the policies they care about at every step of their creation and implementation and the media know to come to them when reporting on sportsman's issues.
In contrast, in all the stories earlier this year about the tuition hikes at Maine's colleges, not one actual student was ever quoted, much less the representative of an organized advocacy group. No legislator fears an organized student voting bock and no student lobbyists are providing the Appropriations Committee, the governor or the UMaine Board of Trustees charts and figures showing why continuing to cut investment in higher education is a stupid thing to do.
In terms of policy development and implementation, students barely exist.
There are 14,000 members of SAM. There are more than 65,000 students at colleges and Universities in Maine.