November 10, 2013

A smarter way to get smart in Maine? Go to state colleges free, pay later

Two bills propose studying the Pay It Forward approach in which students can attend public colleges for free, then commit part of future incomes to sustain the program.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

Today's poll: Paying for college

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Southern Maine Community College students talk about the idea of a “Pay It Forward” model Thursday in South Portland. From left, they are: Nicholas Gallup of Falmouth, Payton Bourne of Holderness, N.H., and Adeleana Bayreuther of Readfield.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Harleyanne Hustus, a third-year student majoring in early childhood development, works on her laptop Thursday. She plans to get a bachelor’s from the University of Maine but came to SMCC first because it was less expensive. “Working and interning – it’s a lot,” she said.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Everything is still on the table in Maine, according to the sponsors of the two bills.

“All the bill would do is commit us to a study,” said Katz, who is optimistic the bill will pass. “I think everyone is intrigued by it. Everyone understands we need to do something different.”

Katz said his bill doesn’t specify who should do the study. It could be the Education Committee, the Muskie School or a new group made up of stakeholders, he said. And the proposal could be modest, he said. Perhaps the idea could be tested at a single campus, or for a certain percentage of students instead of being open to the entire student body. All of these possibilities are issues to be hashed out in the working group, he said.

Katz also acknowledges the challenges and has only begun to think about possible solutions.

“The real issue is the initial funding for the thing,” he said. “There’s a number of possibilities. A revenue bond. Or a consortium of banks could put it together. There’s a lot of creative thinking there.”

Alfond’s bill also looks at scholarship programs with incentives for degree completion, tuition guarantees where students pay the same tuition rate for four years while they attend a public institution, and dual enrollment programs, which allow students to attend a community college for three years and then transfer to a university for one year.

Both bills simply suggest that the programs be studied and a recommendation returned to the Legislature.

“It sounds like a really cool idea,” said Rosa Redonnett, who oversees the UMaine System’s enrollment as executive director of student affairs. But she has many questions: How do you fund it? When does the state begin to recoup a student’s payments? Do you attach his earnings? Would the IRS really share that information? How do you track it?

“It’s a really creative idea and we need creative ideas to help our citizens. But the logistics get in the way,” said Redonnett, who says the idea should be explored in any case. “Maybe it’s not the right idea for Maine, but it’s the right idea to talk about it.”

Maine Community College President John Fitzsimmons agreed that a Pay It Forward model raises cost and administration issues. But the bills give the state a chance to decide if the model would work here.

For Katz, a lawyer, the idea had a familiar ring to his own path to college, and eventually, a doctorate.

“I remember very clearly being about 10 years old and sitting at the kitchen table with my parents and trying to say to them, ‘If you pay for my college tuition, I’ll give you 20 percent of my income for the rest of my life,’ ” he said with a laugh. “When I heard this idea, it was kind of deja vu.”

Critics have suggested that the Pay It Forward model could reduce the number of students aspiring to high-income fields like engineering or medicine, opting instead for low-paying pursuits like poetry or philosophy. But the reverse could also be true, Katz suggests.

Reducing upfront college costs means some students might not have to hold jobs during college and would have time to focus full-time on academically challenging fields. More students could also see graduate school as a possibility since they won’t spend all their resources getting an undergraduate degree.

“It really allows people to pursue their dreams,” Katz said. “If they want to be a doctor, OK. On the other hand, if they want to be an artist, they can pursue that.”

Having no tuition costs up front could help students focus on school, said Harleyanne Hustus, 20, who is in her third year at SMCC studying early childhood development. She plans to get a bachelor’s degree from UMaine but came to SMCC first because it was less expensive.

“Working and interning – it’s a lot,” said Hustus, who currently works 20 hours a week, interns 12 hours and is taking 15 credits of schoolwork.

There are private companies, such as Palo Alto, Calif.-based Upstart, that have similar models. Upstart matches students with individuals willing to invest in specific students based on their online profiles, essentially crowdfunding education costs in exchange for 1 percent of that student’s income for five to 10 years. A single investor might back multiple students, or one student might have multiple backers.

The Senate chairwoman of the Legislature’s Education Committee says the legislation is likely to pass.

“There’s a lot of interest in this in the Legislature, and it’s a natural progression of the conversation we’ve been having,” said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland. Completing a higher education degree or certificate is increasingly an imperative for success, and critical to Maine’s economy, she added.

Studying the model is “a pretty benevolent way of starting the conversation,” Millett said.

“Once you get this started, you’re going to have a waiting list of students to get in,” Burbank said.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

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Today's poll: Paying for college

Do you think the "Pay It Forward" model for higher education could work in Maine?

Yes

No

View Results