Education committee fails Maine college students

Maine’s neediest college students will get no relief from the crushing costs of a college education. In fact, this week the legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs delivered a heartbreaking blow to students with the greatest financial need, making the dream of a college degree unattainable for thousands of Mainers.

College Affordability 4-10-2015blogYesterday, the committee dismissed a bill (LD 627) that would have increased Maine’s primary needs-based financial aid program, the Maine State Grant Program (MSGP). The bill would have helped students like Joseph Buzzell and Patrick Nason who told the committee they could not afford the high loans they would need to take out to attend the University of Maine.

This year, over 33,000 students received Maine State grants according to the Finance Authority of Maine, which administers the program. More than 17,000 of these grant recipients came from families with an adjusted gross income of $11,734 or less. Half were independent students. The grant is available to part-time students as well, providing needed aid to adults students who work or take care of family. However, the legislature has cut MSGP funding by 21 percent over the past ten years and the maximum MSGP award of $1,000 has not changed since 1992.

Instead of cutting our needs-based aid, Maine should increase it five-fold, according to one study that looked at the most affordable public college systems. States with need-based aid that matches the federal Pell Grant program ($5,500 for a full-time student) graduate students with the lowest debt.

There are distinct disparities between those with a college degree and those without; and one of the most telling has to do with income. Maine has a 24-point gap between the percent of middle-class versus low-income high school graduates who enroll in college. Being poor makes it less likely that you’ll complete the degree that would lift you out of poverty. In fact, a low-income student who excels on standardized tests is actually less likely to graduate with a degree than a student from a well-off family who scores poorly.

Legislators voting against the bill said they did so because they would rather put state dollars into Maine’s higher education system to help rein in tuition increases. While laudable, this argument ignores the aim of the MSGP, to assist Maine’s low-income students and working adults in an effective and targeted way.

Eighteen-year-old Joseph Buzzell, facing $7,000 a year in student loans, which he noted equals one-half of his mother’s annual income, said it best in his testimony yesterday. He told legislators that, “Students should be allowed to attend a college based on what they are capable of. Finances shouldn’t hold a student back from their greatest potential and l believe that [MSGP] can be the solution.” Wise words from one so young.