It’s the time of year that many Maine residents are heading back to school – just not as many as there should be.

Around 200,000 Mainers have some college credit but no degree, leaving them unable to fully reach their earning potential, and leaving the state economy short of the workers it needs to fill 21st-century jobs.

To its credit, the University of Maine System is targeting these students. How successful the system is in attracting these so-called stranded learners will go a long way in determining whether Maine can reach its workforce goals in the coming years.

NEW JOBS REQUIRE DEGREES

That workforce, more and more, will require skilled employees – according to Educate Maine, 79 percent of new jobs added to the Maine economy require more than a high school diploma.

And that education pays off – Maine residents with a bachelor’s degree earn 75 percent more than those with a high school diploma over the course of their lives.

Taxpayers also win out, in the form of more payroll taxes and less government assistance.

However, only 33 percent of students who enter a Maine high school as ninth-graders will eventually earn a two- or four-year degree.

What’s more, many of those who don’t earn a degree will pay to acquire some college credit before one or a few of life’s obstacles stops them short of a diploma, leaving them with debt payments but no path toward a better job.

The first step in helping those students is lowering those obstacles so that they can earn a degree in normal time.

For one thing, students must be adequately prepared for college. More than 10 percent of students in the University of Maine System and more than half of Maine community college students require remedial courses before they can start their college education.

That increases the time and financial commitment for students, and makes it more difficult to get enough credits for a degree – fewer than 25 percent of students who take remedial courses earn a degree or transfer to a four-year institution.

Secondly, the state’s higher education system has to make sure it is welcoming to nontraditional students, who require a different set of supports than the typical college student. Not only will that provide the system with the higher enrollment numbers it needs, it also will help build the workforce Maine needs while raising incomes.

All of the schools in the University of Maine System are equipped to take on nontraditional students, but it is a particular point of emphasis at the University of Maine at Augusta, through its campuses in Augusta and Bangor, its eight University College centers scattered throughout the state, and its strong online component.

TARGETING STRANDED LEARNERS

The UMaine System also has established the Adult Completion Scholarship Program, which provides up to $4,000 a year in financial aid to students who have a year or more of college credit but have been away from school for at least three years.

In its short life the program has awarded scholarships to 246 Mainers from 94 communities, and has led to 558 semesters of work and 10 degrees.

The program will continue to help students, thanks to $1 million pledged by Gov. Paul LePage to be included in the 2017 supplemental budget.

There also are resources available at www.nextstepmaine.org, a website for adult learners operated by the Maine Development Foundation.

It is becoming clear that Maine simply does not have enough workers. That means the state will have to import employees to meet demand.

But there is also a lot of unrealized potential right here in the state, and by doing what is necessary to help residents start and complete a college degree – regardless of how much time passes between those two steps – Maine can get the most out of it.