With young people across the state just having graduated from high school, I would like to thank the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram for raising the important issue of higher education for young Mainers in its June 1 editorial, and to share my appreciation for the subsequent opinion pieces I have read in the pages of this paper in response.

It is so important that this issue remains at the forefront of our conversations here in Maine, as college access and affordability become ever more challenging for our young people. I agree with the Telegram that all young Mainers deserve the opportunity to attain a college degree, and I applaud the editorial board for stating an obvious but underacknowledged truth in the editorial’s headline: Maine needs more college graduates.

For me personally, the opportunity to attend Bowdoin College opened up my world and made achieving the American dream a possibility that had previously been beyond my grasp.

When I started the Mitchell Scholarship grants in 1995, it was because I saw the same obstacles and need for higher levels of education among Maine students that I had experienced in my own life. While 20 years later, the need persists, we are getting closer to achieving our goal: increasing the likelihood that young people from every community in Maine will aspire to, pursue and achieve a college degree.

AFFORDABILITY A BIG HURDLE

For many Maine students, addressing their challenging financial reality is the most essential step in taking down barriers to college, especially now as we face a crisis of access because of unmet financial need – a need that is now five times the size it was 20 years ago.

Scholarships and grants can mean the difference between achieving a college degree and joining the workforce with only a high school diploma. The Mitchell Institute is currently seeking ways to increase the amount of our scholarships to ensure that the awards continue to be as meaningful to upcoming classes of scholars as they were to previous ones.

But over the past 20 years, we’ve learned that it takes more than just money and scholarships to get young people across the college finish line. As the June 1 editorial acknowledged, in order for students to succeed, they also must receive academic and social support. We also know that the need for these support systems is even greater for young people who are the first in their families to attend college – a category that represents a significant portion of young Mainers and the majority of our scholars.

I am proud to say the Mitchell Institute works to support the student as a whole through our leadership development programs, mentoring, fellowships, research that allows us to continuously improve and our fantastic community of alumni.

MITCHELL SCHOLARS SUCCEEDING

Throughout each scholar’s undergraduate and post-college experience, we strive to establish a unique collaboration by introducing them to professionals in the same field, advising on career opportunities and mentoring on professional aspirations. This is all in addition to what we are most known for – providing a scholarship every year to an outstanding student from each of Maine’s 130 public high schools.

And I’m even prouder to say our approach works. We’ve had outstanding success, including the fact that 85 percent of our scholars complete college and achieve a degree, compared with 53 perent nationally.

Of our 2014 Mitchell Scholars, 60 percent will be the first in their families to earn a four-year degree, and 70 percent are from families with incomes below Maine’s median family income.

A statistician would not predict that 85 percent of these students will successfully complete college, but that’s what we’ve seen our programs help their predecessors to achieve. Furthermore, the majority of Mitchell alumni have stayed in Maine and supported their communities, contributing more than 30,000 hours of community service each year.

By 2018, Maine will need to fill 196,000 job vacancies. Six out of 10 of those jobs will require post-secondary credentials. Our scholars are Maine’s brightest, and while our support makes an impact on their lives, it is my deepest hope that they will inspire the next generation of Mainers to aspire to and achieve a college degree. Maine’s future depends on it.

— Special to the Telegram