Last week, I was fortunate to be invited to speak on higher education funding at the annual conference of the Maine Educational Opportunity Association (MEEOA). MEEOA represents the federally-funded Upward Bound and TRIO programs, which serve over 10,000 Mainers – some adults, some people with disabilities, and many students in high-poverty middle schools and high schools across the state. Most of the students come from families earning less than $24,000 a year, where neither parent holds a degree.
I loved the audience, and I love the great work they do. I was the first person in my family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, so I know firsthand how daunting, expensive, and foreign a college campus can feel – even to someone like me, who was lucky to have a supportive and proud family cheering her on.
The most troubling statistics I’ve seen in my time at MECEP are from a series of charts contained in a 2014 report by the Mitchell Institute. The percent of 2013 high school graduates in Aroostook County (my home county) who were college-bound that fall was one of the highest in the state – just behind Cumberland County. In fact, over the entire 2006-2013 period, despite the high percentage of low income families in Aroostook, it was the little county that could when it came to getting kids to college. This is especially remarkable given that statewide, fewer than half of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds enroll in college after graduation.
But then something happens. For every 100 County kids starting college in 2011, 23 had disappeared by the sophomore year – the lowest rate of freshman college persistence in the state. And when it comes to college graduation rates, Aroostook ranks near the bottom, along with the Penquis region (Penobscot, Piscataquis, and Knox counties) and Washington County.
This is why MEEOA’s work is so critical.
A degree is one of the surest ways to escape poverty and advance to the middle-class. But, the very fact that you’re poor makes it less likely you’ll ever graduate from college – even if you are academically able. One federal longitudinal study found that poor students who excelled on standardized tests were actually less likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree than kids from well-off families who did poorly on the same tests. Upward Bound and TRIO work to close this disadvantage, by finding promising students as early as seventh grade, reinforcing the importance of college, helping students through the application process, and advising them on their academic and career prospects.
Upward Bound students are four times more likely to graduate than students from similar backgrounds who were not enrolled in the program. Almost 90 percent of the students in the “Talent Search” programs enroll in college after receiving guidance with college and financial aid applications. These initiatives work. But at current funding levels, they only serve about ten percent of eligible kids.
Getting more students from low-income families into college – and seeing them through to graduation – would be transformative not just for the individual students, but for our state and national economy. Australia and Canada have bested us in the percentage of their citizens with college degrees – and bypassed much of the wage stagnation that has hobbled the U.S. recovery- because both nations do more to ensure that their low-income students succeed in college.
That’s where Upward Bound and TRIO come in. When I said that Maine kids are able and hard-working, the MEEOA audience hooted and hollered like a rock concert crowd. They know firsthand the enormous potential of Maine people and kids.
I loved growing up in Aroostook County. Living downstate as I do, I pine for the rolling, open fields and the millions of stars in night skies free of light pollution. I remember the frigid nights, with the winter constellation Orion, the hunter, looming over me with his shield and bow as I hurried down my snowy street, my books pressed against my jacket. I salute the MEEOA members, for doing their part to make sure that any little County girl or boy looking up at that giant sky, wishing on the stars, can realize their dreams.