Staying in Maine after Graduation

Does this story sound familiar? I grew up in a small Maine town, went to the college at Orono, but when I graduated I left the state to find more opportunities, people, running water, etc. There are many socioeconomic issues facing the Great State of Maine ranging from balancing the budget to combating climate change. Perhaps the biggest issue facing state leaders and business owners alike is trying to keep talented students in Maine after graduation.  

Maine suffers from a Jekyll and Hyde complex when it comes to quality of life and employment opportunities. The 2013 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index listed Maine as the 15th most content state in the nation for living, up six spots from the 2012 study. While much of the study centers around physical and emotional health of residents it also takes into account job security and access to food, shelter and health care. Things sound fairly positive for Maine on the quality of life side of the coin, but flip it over and the story changes quickly. According to Forbes’ Best States for Business Survey 2013, Maine ranks dead last, 50th out of fifty states, and we would’ve probably come in behind Puerto Rico if they were included. As if that wasn’t enough, Maine has been ranked last in the survey for the past 4 years, and it doesn’t look like that will change in 2014 either.
But if you are a senior at Orono and you are looking for a job after graduation, surveys by Gallup and Forbes are probably some of the least likely ways you would determine where to work. When you look at the so-called “brain drain from Maine” the root of the issue is not solely the availability of jobs it is students finding reasonable, immediate income to offset high student debt. Sure you can argue some students just want to live in Boston, and frankly there is no way of changing that, but the debt-to-income ratio is an issue that can and should be addressed almost immediately if the State is serious about stopping our talent depletion.
According to recent reports, 67% of college students graduating in Maine this year will carry some amount of student debt, on average that number is just over $29,000 putting our students near the top of the list in debt amount nationwide. The issue of employment no longer focuses on just finding a good job, but rather one that can cut into that debt amount while still allowing for living expenses. Plenty of Maine employers fill the various career fairs on campus throughout the year, but they can’t necessarily offer the same “big number” salaries of their competitors in Boston, New York, and beyond.
Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud is proposing a plan that would give free tuition to students in the UMaine system for their sophomore year, no strings attached. In addition the plan would lock in tuition rates when the student enrolls, which could see a savings of up to 30% when you consider tuition hikes nationwide have recently averaged 6% a year. The second year is so vital because that is the point where student aid and scholarships may not be as widely available or the fact that debt begins to accumulate, pushing some students out of school and into the workforce. The program is estimated to cost the state $13M a year, not a small number and not one that can easily be funded considering recent budget cuts for the UMaine system.
While we don’t endorse a specific candidate in the Governor’s race this year, at least not yet, any former, current, or future student of the UMaine system can see real merit in Michaud’s proposal. Ultimately a move like this, while not guaranteeing students will stay in Maine, at least allows them to accept a $40k/year position in Portland versus the $55k/year position in Boston simply because of student debt concerns.  

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