Even before walking across the stage to receive their high school diplomas this month, thousands of young Mainers are already well on their way to earning a college credential.

That’s thanks to the Aspirations Program, which allows students to take courses through the state’s public universities and community colleges while they are in high school – for credit and for free. Doing so helps them develop confidence, study skills and see postsecondary education as a place where they belong and will be successful.

In Maine, that’s more important than ever.

Just 54% of the state’s high school graduates are now choosing college. That threatens their own upward mobility and our economy, which amid a declining labor force, is desperate for more workers with the knowledge and skills necessary to fill new jobs (“Maine’s workforce isn’t keeping pace with growth, Gov. Mills tells business leaders,” June 3).

In 2023-24, a record 5,577 secondary students earned credit through the University of Maine System (UMS), taking courses taught by our faculty on our campuses or online, or by teachers at their home high schools supported by our faculty. In the last decade, our early college enrollment has exploded nearly three-fold; more funding will likely be needed to meet this demand.

Using appropriation provided by Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature, the Maine Department of Education pays our public universities about half their tuition cost and we waive the remaining amount.


This commitment by our System and the state to ensure these opportunities are available to all students – including those homeschooled – has made Maine a national leader in equitable early college access. We’re proud that representatives of colleges and universities from across the country convened in Portland this month for a two-day conference on enhancing early college quality co-hosted by UMS, the Maine Community College System and the National Alliance on Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. Maine’s two public systems have also been selected to support a NACEP study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop equitable and effective dual enrollment policies that can be adapted and adopted in other states.

More important than all this national attention is the incredible impact public early college is having here in raising Mainers’ aspirations, degree attainment and employability. Those with high school students in their lives should encourage them to enroll and take full advantage to get ahead.

While UMS early college benefits all learners, outcomes are outsized for those who have been historically underserved. For example, graduation rates for students of color who enrolled in UMS early college and then our public universities were 33 percentage points higher than for their peers who did not, and 12 percentage points higher for rural participants, like Washington County educator Bayleigh Alley. She graduated from Jonesport-Beals High School in 2021 with two semesters of college credit, enabling her to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine at Machias in just three years – instead of the typical four – and secure a permanent first grade teaching position at Milbridge Elementary School this spring.

Consistent with the state’s 10-year plan to grow local talent by fostering early career exploration, UMS universities have carefully designed specific sequences of courses that position students for success in our degree programs – which lead to higher earnings – and the Maine economy.

These purposeful early college pathways are focused on fields where Maine most needs professionals like nursing, education, engineering, computing and criminal justice and can even lead to industry-recognized credentials. They also guarantee the greatest transferability of credits toward a college major so Mainers can graduate into the workforce more quickly and with less debt.

To further student outcomes and the return on the investment in the early college initiative by Maine taxpayers, this spring our System expanded its partnership with Let’s Get Ready. Through this service, those enrolled in UMS early college are matched with near-peer mentors, and supported and held accountable to and through their door-opening postsecondary degree, mostly through text messaging and entirely for free.

We’re even piloting direct admission for early college students who achieve a minimum GPA, proactively inviting them to enroll at Maine’s public universities without the anxiety and cost that can come with applying. After all, they have already proven they are well prepared.

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