Higher Education Equals Better-Paying Jobs

We all know it. The surest path out of poverty is a good job with benefits. But to get one of these good-paying jobs, Mainers need more education and training. To give low-income workers the skills they need, Maine must expand access to higher education.

The data are clear. States with lower levels of education have higher rates of unemployment and poverty. Yet Maine continues to fall behind many other states in educational attainment.

First, nearly 34 percent of Mainers ages 18 to 64 have only a high school diploma or equivalent; in all of the other New England states, more people have received some degree beyond high school.

Next, 24 percent of Mainers ages 18 to 64 have some post-secondary education, but no degree. The rate of degree completion in Maine is less than all other New England states, except Rhode Island.

Finally, only 35 percent of Mainers ages 18 to 64 have an associate degree or higher. Maine lags behind New England in rate of attainment for higher education.

Today, the vast majority of jobs that pay wages sufficient to support a family requires higher education. Without it, Mainers in low-paying jobs will stay there, relegated to working long hours, struggling to get by, and living in poverty. And we can no longer ignore that what is bad for our low-income families is also bad for the rest of Maine. It leaves employers without the skilled workforce they need, prevents businesses from expanding, and stunts our state’s economic growth.

For low-income working adults to succeed in higher education, they often need supports in addition to—and different from—those available to traditional students. Adult students with children to care for are hardest-pressed. In one state (Kentucky), the demand of family responsibilities was the most common reason given for leaving community college before earning a degree.

We used to understand this. Just five years ago, with bipartisan support, lawmakers put in place programs to address the barriers that working students face. But the governor and legislature have given these effective, and sometimes transformational, programs short shrift of late, such as:

Parents as Scholars (PaS) program: PaS helps Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)-eligible parents earn two- or four-year college degrees. It pays for support services that working parents need like child care, transportation, and occupational expenses. Thousands of Maine parents went back to school under this program, earning credentials, and getting off welfare. But enrollment dropped dramatically when legislatively-imposed time limits for TANF kicked in in 2012 and individuals lost their TANF benefits and with them their opportunity to finish their degree.

Competitive Skills Scholarship program (CSSP): CSSP provides grants to low-income students not only for tuition and books, but also for child care and transportation, which are critical for adult students to enter and stay in school. CSSP has the added advantage of being designed to educate students in high-demand careers like health care, computer technology, and library science and thus meeting Maine employers’ needs as well. In his latest budget this year, the governor has proposed cutting CSSP by a half million dollars.

Child Care programs: Maine’s Head Start and Child Care Subsidy programs ensure high quality child care that allows parents to work and go to school. Governor LePage and the 125th Maine Legislature cut $2 million in Head Start funding (taking over 200 children out of the program) and cut $2 million from the child care subsidy program (affecting 1,200 children).

Education is fundamental to higher wages and lower poverty. Unfortunately for working adults going back to school, the hurdles often prove too large to overcome. What’s more, the work supports needed for success either do not exist or fall to state budget cuts. Wise state policies and smart public investments like PaS, CSSP, and child care programs can remove barriers to education that will help low-income working families prosper.