Students who graduated last year from Maine’s four-year colleges and universities carried the seventh-highest debt load in the country. On average, each member of Maine’s class of 2012 who relied at least in some part on loans entered today’s worrisome job market owing $29,352, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.

But these graduates are not alone. In spite of increased attention to the problem of growing student debt, both the percentage of students graduating with loan debt and the size of that debt have increased steadily since at least 2008.

That Maine ranks so poorly on this list indicates that action is needed on the state level. That student debt continues to grow nationally indicates that addressing the problem solely in Maine won’t be enough.

DEBT IN MAINE

The principal factors in student loan debt are the cost of attending college, income levels, the availability of grants and the prevalance of private loans, which in general have higher interest rates and are less forgiving than public ones, such as Stafford loans.

Maine has the 17th-highest average in-state tuition for public four-year institutions, at $9,391, a 9 percent increase in five years, according to the College Board.

To its credit, the University of Maine system froze tuition rates at 2012 levels for the fall 2013 semester. Also, tuition at the state’s two-year colleges compares well nationally, and has increased just 1 percent in five years.

The rankings, however, are a little skewed, in a way that masks the real scope of the problem in Maine.

Both the percentage of graduates with debt and the average debt per graduate are higher at Maine’s public universities than at its esteemed private schools, Bates, Bowdoin and Colby, largely because of the availability of grants and other financial aid at the private schools.

At Colby College, for instance, 34 percent of the graduates left school with debt, at an average of $24,453 per student with debt. At the University of Maine System’s flagship campus in Orono, 78 percent of the graduates graduated with an average debt of $32,438. In short, debt levels are much higher and more prevalant at the schools that overwhelmingly educate in-state students.

That means Maine’s college debt problem is mostly affecting Mainers. These native graduates are entering the workforce at a time of high unemployment and stagnant wages saddled with debt, making it difficult for them to start saving, whether to buy a house, start a busines or do many of the other things that contribute both to the economy and the state’s social fabric.

FINDING SOLUTIONS

Some help is already in place.

Federally, new programs offer income-based repayment and loan forgiveness after 20 years.

Here, the Educational Opportunity Tax Credit, for one, is available for students who graduate from a Maine school and stay in the state to work following graduation. A legislative committee, however, has recommended capping the tax credit as part of a plan to find $40 million of savings in the state budget.

In January, the Legislature’s education committee will consider a bill by state Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, that would allow the study of an innovative college payment program. Under the program, now used in Oregon, a student’s college costs are paid by a state fund, as long as that student agrees to pay a percentage of his or her earnings back into the fund for a set number of years.

There are questions if the program’s math can work in Maine. The numbers used in Oregon – 3 percent of income over about 25 years – would leave Maine’s fund with a shortfall, given low wages and the chance of unemployment.

But Katz’s bill also will shine a light on Maine’s student debt problem. Solutions should include budgetary support for the UMaine system, in order to head off tuition increases, as well as greater coordination between the state’s community colleges and its four-year institutions, so that students starting out at the cheaper two-year schools can more easily transfer without having to repeat courses.

At the federal level, more information about each school’s student debt level and post-graduation employment prospects should be collected and contextualized. That is part of a plan by President Obama to highlight schools that keep costs and student debt down, a valuable tool for students and parents.

More work also has to be done to provide information about school-funding options. Too many students take out private loans even before they’ve exhausted their opportunities in the public loan market.

Tuition costs have tripled in the last 30 years, even when considering for inflation. At the same time, wages have remained stagnant. That is unsustainable if this state, and this country, are going to rebuild the economy with education as its building blocks.

This issue must be addressed before an entire generation is set back just when it should be moving forward.