Mitchell Institute

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The federal government makes college financial aid assistance far too complex. Parents are unable to easily navigate the forms. Too few – about 10 percent at Lewiston High School, for example – high school seniors file the critical FAFSA document, and skip a golden opportunity to receive low-interest loans, scholarships and grants.

It’s their fault.

Educators and guidance counselors are too focused on getting students into four-year colleges, and fail to support students with different higher education goals. Through academic tracking, either formal or informal, students are shunted away from, or sprung toward, educational attainment.

It’s their fault.

Parents who may have declined to attend college can hinder their children’s enthusiasm for attending college. By failing to adequately plan for their child’s educational future, parents become ignorant of, or abandon, the college application and selection process and hurt their child’s chances.

It’s their fault.

Schools, community and business organizations don’t do enough to encourage college attendance, by failing to sponsor seminars like the Finance Authority of Maine’s College Goal Sunday, offer trips to college campuses or local businesses for career days, or hold college introduction programs locally.

It’s their fault.

Colleges don’t do enough local outreach to recruit, or inspire, students. They also fail in giving students crucial tools for success, such as the FAFSA forms. Colleges should have an interest in strong local communities.

Shall we go on?

These are a snapshot of findings from the Mitchell Institute, which just released its five-year update on barriers to college education for Maine students. The study found loopholes in every corner of the process, all large enough to swallow student ambitions whole.

Frightening statistics illustrate this. Since 2002, the number of Maine high school graduates who aspire to college has climbed steadily to 70 percent. Meanwhile, though, those who enrolled in college declined as steadily, now to just 57 percent.

A widening divide between college ambition and realization was unexpected, researchers say, an uncomfortable truth that underscores the dire need to rectify the problems, and echo the successful practices, detailed in the report.

The problem of poor college attainment is most pervasive here, Central and Western Maine. “This region often lags when it comes to taking timely, concrete steps to plan for students’ futures,” the report states, and criticizes our low “strength of convictions” regarding the attainability and importance of college.

So despite bright spots like Lewiston High School’s aspirations program and Dirigo High School’s partnership with the University of Maine at Farmington earning kudos from the institute, our inability as a region to push our children toward college remains a major concern, and obstacle.

It excuses a single excuse of complex financial aid, tracking, poor parental involvement or unprepared students from sole culpability. The Mitchell Institute makes it clear we cannot say failure to attend college is “their fault.”

It’s our fault, as we all can – and must – do more to change this trend.

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