PORTLAND — When we ask someone to envision what financial inequality looks like in America, many of us probably think about the Wall Street bankers and the casino economy they created who crashed our economy.

But there’s another face to financial inequality that might not readily come to mind – young working Mainers struggling to get by while carrying the burden of student loans.

I’m one of those people. When I got my undergraduate degree, I was eager to join the workforce. But after only one year in the “real world,” I realized that my options were limited.

Like many people in my generation, it seemed the best plan was to go back to school to get my graduate degree and hope that the next time I entered the workforce, the economy would have recovered a little. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.

It took me two years to find a permanent full-time job. Two years. Within those two years, I took every job I could get, including a housekeeping position at a local hotel. After all, I had rent and other bills to pay. But on top of those financial commitments, perhaps the largest worry of mine was the more than $120,000 worth of student loan debt I had accrued while in school.

The absurdity of the situation would be comical if it weren’t so serious: A debt collector working for Sallie Mae told me that not paying my loans could ruin my credit and make it tougher to find employment, somehow failing to understand that I couldn’t pay my loans without having a job.

My story is not unique. Young people across the state and nation are having the same experience: going to school to better their job prospects and being left with debt that feels impossible to dig out of.

Maine’s experience mirrors the national trends: 40 years of disinvestment in higher education, tuition increases that drastically exceed the rate of inflation and an explosion of student debt.

In the past five years, tuition at Maine’s four-year universities has increased by more than $1,400 per student and is now the 13th highest in the country. Over that same time period, the average student debt load for graduating seniors has increased by more than 40 percent, to $29,352.

These numbers are staggering and are having a profound impact upon the living standards and the opportunity for prosperity for Mainers. Consider that 59 percent of those carrying student debt are 30 or older. This lack of investment by Augusta on the front end means that our working families will be paying down the principal plus interest for dozens of years.

If we haven’t reached a critical tipping point on this issue, we soon will. The student and faculty protests against the planned cuts at the University of Southern Maine show that reform in our higher education system is badly needed – not only in how our public universities value educational experience for students, but also how we can make sure no one mortgages their future just to get a college degree.

Fortunately, it looks like legislators in Augusta are getting the message and are taking steps to be proactive instead of reactive.

During the recently concluded legislative session, lawmakers passed L.D. 1849, a bill setting up a commission to study college affordability and make recommendations to the Legislature’s Education Committee.

The commission is expected to study the feasibility of the innovative “Pay it Forward” model championed in Oregon – which lets students go to university for free, then pay back a portion of their income for 22 years. They are also tasked explicitly with increasing degree completion.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democratic candidate for governor, has suggested a plan to make sophomore year free for Mainers as a way to boost graduation rates.

With the cost of education being so squarely out of reach for so many Mainers, there is no shortage of creative solutions. We can only hope that Augusta and D.C. are ready to take action.

— Special to the Press Herald