Jennifer Hutchinson

One of the biggest and most impactful actions taken by Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature this year was the $10 million increase in funding for the Maine State Grant program. This one action may well be that gateway for thousands of Mainers to enroll in, and complete, their post-secondary degree.

As someone who has dedicated my career to helping Mainers figure out the best way to finance post-secondary education, I know too well, and have seen too often, how paying for college is often the largest barrier for students. We have all read news reports about the astronomical collective student debt in our country, and how it is negatively impacting individual lives, families’ future prosperity, and our state and national economies.

Historically, the Maine State Grant program helps approximately 12,500 Maine students each year pay for college. The new $10 million in additional funding substantially increases 2021-2022 academic year grant amounts for qualified students — from $1,500 to $2,500 for full-time students and from $750 to $1,250 for half- or three-quarter-time students. With this increase, many Maine students, including adult learners, and adults who have some college under their belts but have not yet completed a degree, now will be able to attend college in Maine for reduced cost, and in some cases, for free.

This boost in funding means a post-secondary degree or credential is now in reach for thousands of Maine people without the burden of student debt or with much less debt. It is a powerful investment in Maine’s future.

Education is key to a bright and successful future for Maine people and to addressing one of Maine’s biggest economic challenges — the size and skill level of our workforce. For Maine’s economy to grow, employers need workers with post-secondary degrees or credentials of value, and a strong and able workforce with skills to fill good jobs today, and more good jobs tomorrow.

Maine policy leaders and multiple organizations across the state recognize that preparing today’s students is a priority for our state. The Mills Administration’s 10-year economic development strategy, released in late 2019, is serving as a crucial guide with important goals to grow and strengthen Maine’s workforce. The report highlights Maine’s strengths and the need for a workforce that is agile and adaptable to regularly-changing workforce needs, while prioritizing strategies and investments that build bridges for students and people of working age who are not employed. The Maine State Grant Program is one such bridge.

Additionally, more than 100 organizations are part of the MaineSpark coalition and are working together to help Maine achieve its education attainment goal: that by 2025, 60% of Mainers will hold education and workforce credentials. Connecting recent high school graduates and adults without a post-secondary degree or credential is a critical part of MaineSpark’s efforts and Maine’s future success.

Statistics behind MaineSpark’s goal speak to the mission — including that over the last decade, nearly all jobs created in the U.S. have gone to people with college degrees or other post-secondary credentials, and earnings are significantly higher for college graduates on average than those with only high school diplomas.

We all benefit when we connect students and adults who lack a degree or credential with opportunities that provide a path to achieving their aspirations, increase college enrollment, improve and support students’ transition to college, and grow college retention rates.

My financial aid associates across Maine in both the public and private sector are very excited at the added value that this funding will bring to first-generation and other students with financial barriers that can get in the way of their goals. Together, with the instrumental help of the Finance Authority of Maine, policymakers are making sure more Maine people can pursue educational opportunities.

This is one of the wisest investments Maine can make to help resolve our state’s long-standing workforce shortages. Resolving these challenges is not only a priority, but an imperative.

The recent $10 million increase in funding for the Maine State Grant program will go a long way toward ensuring the future successes of Maine’s economy, our employers, our communities, and our people. The results of this new investment are sure to be impressive.

Jennifer Hutchinson of East Wilton is president of the Maine Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

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