On Oct. 1, 192,000 Mainers resumed making payments on more than $6.5 billion in cumulative student loan debt. With Maine ranking 42nd in states for lowest student debt at graduation, it’s not an exaggeration to say that many borrowers will have to make the hard choice between reducing essential expenses like food and utilities or defaulting. Some will be the first in their families to set aside their dreams of home ownership or will need to delay retirement.

In response to this national crisis, the Biden-Harris Administration has officially established safeguards against student loan debt that is too high compared to a student’s income after earning a degree. The Gainful Employment rule aims to protect around 700,000 students each year from career training programs that would leave them saddled with unaffordable loan payments. At the same time, the Financial Value Transparency framework intends to provide learners with detailed information about the net costs and expected financial outcomes of post-secondary programs.

Starting next summer, for-profit colleges and non-degree certificate programs must prove they are a sound investment to their students or lose access to federal aid for enrolled students. They also need to show that a majority of their graduates are earning more than working adults with only a high school diploma in their state.

This is excellent news for students, and for the Maine Community College System, which has seen a 16% increase in enrollment this fall, with its student population now the largest in its history. That’s compared to only a 4.4% increase in enrollment to community colleges nationwide, according to the latest enrollment data from National Student Clearinghouse Research.

Innovative programs like Free College Scholarship, through which high schoolers who graduate in years 2020-2025 are eligible to pursue associate degrees tuition-free, and investments in student services, take important accountability for students’ long-term financial well-being.

Another way community colleges innovate is by rethinking transfer options. Partnering with online, competency-based schools like Western Governors University helps to keep students, who are often working adults, on a path to a four-year degree. High school students who participate in dual enrollment programs at a local community college campus can also save time and money in earning a bachelor’s degree.

Community college degree programs are often tied to local workforce opportunities, and quality education is still the key to attaining upward mobility and preparing for a fulfilling, prosperous career, as well as benefits beyond earnings. The 2021 median income for residents of Maine with a bachelor’s degree was approximately $49,500 compared to a median income of $33,200 for high school graduates without a college degree. These income and opportunity gaps compound annually and span generations.

And that’s the key. Results ultimately matter most. The federal government is stepping in to ensure students are pursuing programs that provide a reasonable chance to build a better life.

By continuing to support the Maine Community College System, and keeping our focus on provable outcomes, we can change the narrative surrounding higher education debt and provide students with credentials that employers trust.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.