It’s that time of year again: All across the state, at high schools, technical schools and colleges, graduating students are getting their degrees and exploring their options for the next chapter of their lives.

The Class of 2019 has many shining stars. For example, Ana Eliza Souza Cunha of Orono, salutatorian of the University of Maine Class of 2019. Ana majored in biology and minored in neuroscience and psychology, and has a concentration in pre-medical studies. On top of excelling in these challenging fields of study, Ana was a mentor for other students and volunteered with a number of different service organizations. Congratulations on your accomplishments, Ana!

As Ana and her classmates go out into the world, they bring new knowledge, perspectives and aspirations into the workforce, and will undoubtedly become integral members of whatever community in which they decide to live in. Hopefully, they choose to stay here in Maine.

One of the greatest challenges we face as a state is attracting and retaining young, educated people and families for our workforce. Maine’s aging demographic is nothing new. In fact, Maine has consistently held the title of the oldest state in the nation for over a decade. Fortunately, many graduates want to stay in Maine. Whether they were born here or moved here for school, it is easy to fall in love with our state.

One issue that many recent graduates who want to live in Maine face is finding work that can cover the cost of their student loan debt.

According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, in 2017 (the last year for which data was available) the average student loan borrower in the U.S. held about $33,000 in student loan debt. A recent study by credit agency Experianfound that Mainers collectively hold about $6 billion worth of student debt.

Needless to say, this can be a significant burden for someone entering the workforce. Managing a student loan payment of $393 per month (the current U.S. average according to the Federal Reserve) on top of housing, insurance, food and everything else is a lot to ask of someone just entering the workforce. Many borrowers defer or default on their loans and rack up interest.

When indebted graduates put their paychecks toward paying loans, they aren’t spending in their local economy. Borrowers with high levels of student debt are less likely to take on the financial risk of buying a home or starting a business, which is ultimately harmful for our economy.

Luckily, Maine has an innovative program to help graduates who are working to pay down their student loans. The Educational Opportunity Tax Credit reimburses some folks who live in Maine and make regular payments on their student loans. This program is an important tool for attracting and retaining skilled workers in Maine.

Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby introduced a bill this session which would provide more significant support for people living and working in Maine with student debt. Sen. Libby’s bill would authorize a bond to provide one time payments to people who agree to live and work in Maine for a period of five years.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli also introduced a bill which would establish the “Student Loan Bill of Rights” — a system for the state to oversee student loan servicers who do business in Maine. The bill creates a registration procedure for lenders, requires lenders to comply with federal law and identifies prohibited acts for lenders, including misleading student loan borrowers and fraud. It also allows state officials to investigate student loan servicers.

If you have any questions or comments, I’d like to hear from you. I can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at (207) 287-1515.

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