ALNA — Members of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee recently heard public testimony on two important bills to improve college affordability: L.D. 1703, “An Act To Increase College Affordability and the Rate of Degree Completion,” and L.D. 1702, a similar bill.

Both bills have bipartisan support as well as the backing of the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System. This is a rare political moment for the crucial economic and ethical issue of college affordability with all parties playing nice in the sandbox. These two bills deserve our public attention and support.

I have a longitudinal, kitchen-table view of college affordability in Maine as a college access program counselor and director. Two decades of sitting with students and families at their kitchen tables with financial aid paperwork spread out, helping them do a cost-benefit analysis of college.

Twenty years ago, families worried about the financial strain. Nothing was being handed to them. Students saved summer earnings that otherwise went to household expenses, they had work-study, parents paid for books and transportation and they took out the maximum guaranteed loans available. College was a hardship but doable.

Fast-forward 10 years, and the kitchen-table conversations changed. Anyone who knew a college student in the last decade knows that rapidly rising costs but level scholarship programs led to huge debt increases to cover the gap.

Students asked: “How much debt is too much?” “Should I forget being a teacher and opt for a lucrative career in health care?” Tough questions, but loans were available and motivated students and families could do it.

Fast forward to the present. At Maine kitchen tables each spring, we are no longer talking about managing debt load. Middle- and lower-income families now face the sad reality that our public four-year institutions are not an option. The gap between cost and aid is now so massive that many Mainers can’t find loans to cover costs.

My students are doing everything right. They’re taking college prep, Advanced Placement and honors courses, performing well, filling out forms on time, participating in summer college-going experiences, getting into lots of colleges and even getting merit scholarships and maxing out loans. Even with local scholarships in hand, though, they are not able to afford many of the branches of the University of Maine System.

Affordability is an economic issue about whether Maine is going to have a college-educated workforce to bolster our economy in the future and fill the jobs left by an aging population. But it is, even more importantly, an ethical issue of the here and now.

Many people ask me, “We have a great community college system. Why don’t your students go to a two-year college and transfer?” My response is that is exactly what is happening and it’s not working.

Twenty years ago, nearly 95 percent of my students went on to four-year colleges. Today, almost half go to two-year colleges, and they aren’t persisting or transferring at the rates that they should.

Why? Experience and research tell us that students need to be matched by ability and aspirations. Community college for a student who has strived and aspired to a four-year degree is often a mismatch. Peers do not necessarily support their academic focus, and programming, advising, research opportunities or internships with a four-year career path focus are limited. Without that focus and support, we’re losing them.

Others ask why we don’t encourage more students to pursue an associate degree and get out in the workforce sooner. That may, in fact, be the right choice for a particular individual, but is that really the vision of the Maine we want?

Do we really want a two-tier system that tracks lower- and middle-class students to community college while only the well-off are afforded the opportunity to attend our four-year public institutions? By default, that is exactly what is happening today, and it is why it is so important to address this issue of affordability now.

It is time to sound an alarm. Maine is failing to provide equal opportunity for higher education. We are missing the boat with talented, motivated students. These are the students who we most want educated – students who are deeply rooted in their communities and want to stay in Maine and make their families proud.

The time is now for Maine to significantly increase the need-based State of Maine Grant Program and invest in a “pay forward, pay back” model – in which students attend college for free and pay back the state with a percentage of their income – for our public higher education system.