One of the most interesting policy ideas to come out of last year’s gubernatorial campaign was put forward by then-candidate Paul Le- Page. It was the creation of an optional fifth year of high school, which would let a student earn a high school diploma and an associate degree at the same time.

The idea would address one of Maine’s core economic challenges — our low rate of higher education attainment in the work force. It could also be a boon for Maine students, whether they want to go right into employment or continue working toward a four-year degree with a low-cost head start.

Good idea, but getting it into action in Maine schools, especially at a time when districts are looking to cut their budgets, creates another set of challenges. To his credit, now-Gov. Le- Page has put together a group to make it work.

The Early College Task Force, made up of lawmakers and educators on the high school and college levels, has until December to determine how to make this and other options available for Maine students.

Their charge is to build on the early college offerings that already exist in most schools, but are not universally promoted. High school students already attend classes at community colleges and state university campuses at the state’s expense. Some take college classes online or through video-equipped distance learning centers.

Part of the task force’s job will be developing a policy that will make early college courses available to all students, whether they opt for a five-year program or not. It should also come up with hard numbers of how much offering the option would cost.

For the critics who say that Maine educators are struggling to meet their current responsibilities without adding new programs, the answer is simple. Maine can’t afford not to pursue programs that will involve more students in higher education.

A high school diploma is not enough for today’s job market, and current school programs work well for many students but still leave too many behind. Students are finishing high school too often without the skills they need to get a good job or make the transition to college-level work.

Making it easier for more people to move from high school to college will not only improve their economic prospects, but everyone’s. It’s still an interesting idea and well worth pursuing.