A special college affordability commission in Augusta is recommending that state officials increase the amount of state college grant funds, expand early college programs and hire more community college counselors to help students not only get into college, but reach graduation.

“Maine’s economic future depends on creating an educated and skilled workforce,” said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, Senate chairwoman of the Commission to Study College Affordability and College Completion. The group released preliminary findings this week, and will give its final report to the Legislature in December.

“The Commission’s recommendations will have a dramatic impact on making higher education more affordable for our students and their families and help students attain their degrees,” said Millett in a statement.

College affordability has emerged as a critical issue nationwide as tuition costs at state universities soared more than 200 percent in recent decades and student loan debt increased to more than $1 trillion.

For the last three years, tuition at University of Maine System schools has been frozen, and the state hasn’t cut its allocation. But university officials said that this year they plan to ask for more state funding, even though it remains a tough economic climate for the state.

The commission recommended the state increase the amount of the needs-based Maine State Grant, currently awarded at $1,000 a year, and that summer scholarship opportunities be expanded.

The commission also focused on college persistence – which measures how many college freshmen return for a second year – and college completion.

According to a study of Maine high school graduates who went on to attend Maine colleges, 83 percent return for a second year, compared to 75 percent nationwide, the Mitchell Institute survey found.

The state’s graduation rate at public universities is 51 percent, compared to 55 percent nationwide; at Maine’s community colleges, the graduation rate is 25 percent, higher than the 21 percent graduation rate nationwide, the survey found.

The commission also unanimously endorsed targets for workforce training and degree completion, and asked the state’s institutions of higher education to review and report back on so-called “game changer” policy proposals. Those proposals, from the Washington-based nonprofit Complete College America, include changing how remedial courses are offered and credited, upping full-time status to 15 credits a semester instead of 12, tying state funding to student performance, and funneling students into highly structured degree programs.

The group also approved a survey on college affordability to be distributed to parents, students and graduates.

The commission unanimously rejected a plan to provide college for free, with graduates paying back a portion of their income. The group said the so-called “Pay it Forward Model” posed problems, from significant up-front costs to questions about some assumptions underlying the model.

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