As a state with an aging population and an ongoing exodus of educated youth, Maine needs to do whatever it can to keep its young people here after they earn their college degrees. So a tax credit for graduates who stay in Maine to work would seem to be a no-brainer.

Indeed, the Educational Opportunity Tax Credit got a lot of praise when it was approved seven years ago. But it’s gone overlooked and underused by its target audience because it hasn’t had a marketing budget. And with recent efforts to fund outreach having stalled, the plan to retain Maine’s best and brightest will continue to reach just a fraction of those who could use it – at a cost to Maine’s economy as well as to our students.

Under the program, students who graduate from a Maine college, university or community college and stay in Maine can reduce the amount they owe the state in taxes by up to $356 per month for a bachelor’s degree or $65 per month for an associate degree. (It’s refundable for those who earn a degree in a science, technology, engineering or math field.)

About 1,100 graduates received the credit in 2012, an infinitesimal number considering the thousands of Mainers who earn degrees each year and would be eligible.

The state hasn’t been willing to dedicate even the smallest amount of money to letting high schools and parent groups know about the program. Last year, lawmakers gave the Finance Authority of Maine $22,000 to contract with a nonprofit to create a marketing campaign for the program. But it was eliminated in a LePage administration budget-cutting move; the funding for the next fiscal year may be erased next session.

This is a shortsighted approach, given that both students and the state benefit from the Educational Opportunity Tax Credit. Maine residents with bachelor’s degrees can expect to earn 63 percent more than Mainers with high school diplomas; Maine residents with associate degrees out-earn Maine high school graduates by 39 percent.

An educated workforce is critical to expanding Maine’s economy, considering that four years from now, according to forecasters, 59 percent of jobs in Maine will demand post-high school education. Currently, though, only 37 percent of Mainers 25 years and older have post-secondary degrees.

Everyone talks about the impact of the “brain drain” and the “skills gap” on our state’s economy. Maine took a step toward addressing these issues by creating the Educational Opportunity Tax Credit. The size of the credit isn’t enough to make a huge difference in one’s college decision making – but the people who need it need to know about it, and that’s the state’s responsibility.

This editorial was corrected Monday, Jan. 6, to reflect a misstatement in the tax credit available under the Educational Opportunity Tax Credit. A student who graduated from a state university, college or community college in 2013 and stayed in Maine can claim up to $356 for a bachelor’s degree and $65 for an associate’s degree per month to reduce the amount they owe the state in taxes.

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