The June 30 Press Herald article “UMaine System expects big drop in enrollment this fall, continuing downward trend” illuminates some of the important dangers – personal and societal – of the decline in people seeking two- and four-year college degrees in Maine and across the nation.

As the article indicates, income and a family’s financial resources factor into rates of college enrollment and degree completion. Yet to fully understand the forces that are suppressing college enrollment, we need to look beyond the cost of higher education in terms of traditional expenses such as tuition, room and board. Instead, it’s important to think more broadly about the true and sometimes invisible costs of earning a degree – and how this tally keeps higher education out of reach for too many Maine families.

Maine’s colleges and universities all have proven ways of helping to close the financial gap between the cost of tuition and students’ ability to pay. These options include low-interest federal loans, campus-based work-study jobs and need-based federal and institutional grants. These sources of support are vital to students and their families. But too often they are not enough to overcome these and other barriers that low-income, first-generation-to-college students often face.

Through their own part-time jobs, many students are significant contributors to their household incomes. For these students, attending a four-year residential college away from home can mean less money for groceries, rent and heat – for their parents and younger siblings.

Some high school students are important caregivers whose presence at home allows parents and guardians to work outside the home.

And some students lack access to relatively modest one-time monies that are needed to get squared away in a new college setting.


In other words, a generous and thoughtfully prepared financial aid package may not cover students’ true need, and it may not cover miscellaneous and unforeseen expenses that can compound during students’ college careers and derail them from finishing their degree plans. So, what are we to do?

We have to begin by acknowledging the higher impact of college costs on low-income students and expand our understanding of students’ true need on an individual basis. We also must create and sustain, within our communities and at colleges and universities, more funds to help students with supplemental expenses – things like medical bills, one-time program fees, rent increases, the escalating cost of utilities and professional certification and exam fees.

At the Mitchell Institute, where we provide our scholarship recipients with $10,000 over four years – as well as offering additional funding to help pay for emergencies, internship-related travel and exposure to career-related opportunities – experience tells us that two things make a difference in college enrollment and persistence to a degree: providing individualized supports to students and making sure students know those supports are available for the entirety of their college careers.

If we hope to sustain Maine’s economy and help young people achieve their full potential over their lifetimes, we must fully account for true need in the cost of higher education, and we must, through public and private investments, meet that need in full.

Not a week goes by without industry and business leaders speaking of the significant challenges of securing a skilled and future-focused workforce. There are thousands of young people with high aspirations who want to answer the call. We need to meet their ambition with reciprocal levels of support to ensure they begin their college journeys and reach the finish line.

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