Maine employers, and employers at companies all across our nation, are in need of more skilled and better-trained workers. Yet, too many people are unable to complete postsecondary degrees that can provide these skills.

In Maine, 60 percent of high school graduates attend college in the fall immediately following graduation. Within six years, 63 percent of those students complete college. Each of these graduates is crucial to supporting Maine’s current and future workforce and economic development.

What can we do to support students who start college but stop attending before they are able to complete a program? In our state, according to the University of Maine System (UMS), there are approximately 185,000 Maine adults who have attended college, but have not earned a degree.

Why is that? There are many factors, but a common stated reason is that financial limitations or hardships often inhibit a student’s ability to remain in college. Creative financial programs are needed to help those students return to college and turn those “stranded credits” into degrees. Doing so not only benefits the student, but also their family, their community and our state.

As the father of three young adults, I know from personal experiences that obtaining a degree requires a much larger financial commitment today than it was for my generation.

How can we help address these challenges?

UMS has recently made a commitment to making higher education as affordable and accessible as possible by freezing tuition in five of the last six years, including this year.

Additionally, I am pleased that UMS, with support from the state Legislature and Gov. Mills, has also focused attention and needed funding on adult completion efforts. Recently, UMS created a Small Debt Forgiveness Program to support adult students who return to their higher education journeys. This program is specifically designed for those who have started college, have institutional student debt of up to $2,500 at one of our University of Maine System schools, are considered independent on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), have stopped attending, and have not been enrolled for two or more years. UMS estimates that there are approximately 1,300 Mainers who qualify for the Small Debt Forgiveness Program.

To be eligible, a student needs to re-enroll in at least six credit hours (basically two classes) toward a degree or certification. The student will work with a UMS success coach in conjunction with a campus academic adviser and other student support staff. Together, this team will create a plan to support students in remaining on track and graduating. One-half of the student debt will be forgiven after one successfully completed semester, and the second half will be forgiven after the successful completion of a second consecutive semester.

UMS’ Small Debt Forgiveness Program is modeled after a similar successful program at Wayne State University in Michigan, which has been in place for about four years. Data there shows that students who return to college utilizing this program stay in college—and graduate with a degree.

The Small Debt Forgiveness Program is a WIN-WIN-WIN. Returning students win when up to $2,500 of their college debt is forgiven and they receive the academic and coaching support needed to get back on track for degree/certificate completion, allowing them to move forward in their careers. UMS wins with higher student enrollment and graduation rates. As we move closer to achieving our education attainment goal of 60 percent of Maine adults holding a credential of value by 2025, the entire state of Maine wins. Additionally, our employer community will have access to more trained and skilled future workers to support them in growing their businesses and contributing to the economic vitality of our state.

The Small Debt Forgiveness Program is an important tool in making sure we have the skilled, educated workforce our state will need to compete in the years to come. I support it wholeheartedly as both a Mainer and a business leader, and I hope that we see continued support for and investments in this program in the future. 


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