WATERVILLE — Michael Dubyak, the CEO of Wright Express, is right on target in focusing on higher education as an engine of job creation in Maine (Nov. 14, “Maine’s missing strategic imperative: Higher ed”).

It is the best investment we can make in Maine’s economy and future. The best way to persuade our students to remain here is to give them good reasons not to leave in the first place. Those who attend college in Maine tend to stay here.

Too many who leave Maine to go to college wind up working and living out of state.

I agree with Dubyak and the others in our state who see that Maine needs to invest more in higher education over the next decade. My suggestion for the most cost-effective mechanism that has a high return on investment to the citizens and taxpayers is to fully fund the Maine Student Grant program.

“Fund Students First” is a model that has worked in other states and can work here. The vehicle for it already exists – the need-based Maine Student Grant program.

Direct subvention of institutions, by contrast, though necessary to some degree, is not the best way to utilize free-market forces to increase student participation in higher education. A gradual increase of the Maine Student Grant to full funding (as defined by the state some years ago) would accomplish this in economical fashion by making more and higher direct grants to students.

relying on free-market forces, we let students choose their own path and college and then smooth the way for them by a progressive leveling of the financial playing field.

Maine benefits from a wide range of high-quality institutions, public and private, that provide students with the choice to find the right size, the right program and the right location that meets their needs.

Rather than choosing to fund institutions, let us fund students first, and let them choose their paths to the educations, and to the careers, that suit them best.

Thomas College, for example, excels at educating many first-generation college students, offering generous institutional financial aid to enable attendance and placing graduates in jobs that are overwhelmingly in Maine. Larger state grants to these students would be leveraged greatly by our own scholarships.

The results can be dramatic for our state. At Thomas College, we have seen not only Maine students stay and work here after graduation, but also students “from away” remain in our state to support our communities and economy

This propensity to live and work in Maine is illustrated by the fact that while 78 percent of our 2010 graduates are from Maine, 85 percent of them are employed and working in our state. We like to think of this as a “Brain Gain” for our state and a model, though modest, of how to keep young people here.

Thomas guarantees job placement upon graduation and, in a severely down employment market, had placed over 90 percent of this year’s May graduates in jobs by August.

The fact that all our graduates are finding positions illustrates a sound principle – the most important output of higher education is to produce more graduates at all degree and certificate levels.

Maine needs to increase its investments in higher education. No means that I can think of is more equitable, better targeted or more effective than the Maine Student Grant.

Every tax dollar spent here is leveraged, by the federal Pell Grants and by institution-based financial aid. Maine students for whom the decision to attend college is difficult will find this an incentive to attend the Maine college of their choice.

Rather than prescribe college programs for students in a top-down manner, parties with an interest in higher education outcomes need to publicize to high school students what they will be looking for in college graduates when they hire.

Students will vote with their feet, since attraction is a more effective means than most alternatives in our democratic society.

Funding students first and then letting our excellent range of Maine colleges and universities respond to their needs is the quickest, most effective way to raise the educational level in our state and impact our economy.

 

– Special to the Press Herald