Workforce bill helps adult learners, but does not go far enough

Nearly one in four Maine adults have started college, but never earned their degree. According to the Working Poor Families Project, Maine has one of the highest rates in New England of adults with incomplete credentials. By not obtaining a degree or certificate, these adults significantly reduce their earning potential over a lifetime.

Perennially, Maine students drop out of university or college, not to return. For example, only 58% of Maine first-year community college students in 2010 continued a second year. According to University of Maine Chancellor James Page these adults, “could have a few credits or they could be a few credits shy of a degree.” He correctly calls this a “stranded investment.”

A select committee of the 126th Maine Legislature set out to attract adults with prior education credits back to school. An Act to Strengthen Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future (LD 90) creates a UMaine scholarship program for adults to finish their baccalaureate degrees, expands community college associate degree programs, and eases the transfer of credits between the two. It also establishes a task force to find ways to increase adult degree completion rates. The House and Senate both unanimously passed the bill, which will jumpstart new careers for an estimated 2,300 working Mainers, raise incomes, and provide needed workforce skills for today’s economy.

The committee is to be commended for their vision, hard work, and bipartisanship. Clearly LD 90 will help improve job prospects for many Mainers who, with a university education, can compete for better-paying jobs. Yet, low-income adults will have difficulty taking advantage of the bill’s good intentions.

Maine’s working adults often have more than one job, lack quality day care, and cannot afford gasoline to drive regularly to campus (especially in rural Maine). This is why, in part, just 5% of Maine adults are enrolled in post-secondary education at least part time. In order to succeed in higher education, low-income adults need supports that allow them to take care of their family first; then to concentrate on studying and attending classes.

Maine’s Competitive Skills Scholarship program (CSSP) does just that. CSSP provides grants to low-income students not only for tuition and books, but also for child care, transportation, and family emergencies critical for them to enter and stay in school. CSSP makes higher education accessible to low-income, working Mainers.

According to some of Maine’s leading researchers and labor economists, CSSP helps Maine expand its pool of higher-skilled, higher-paid workers. They cite a Maine Department of Labor report that shows, “in the first 30 months of the program, only nine percent of participants left the program without graduating.” This is far higher than the community college return rate of the general student population as noted above.

Unfortunately LD 90 does nothing for CSSP, which is proposed to be cut in the governor’s budget.

An educated workforce is good for all of us. It provides skills needed by businesses to expand and flourish. It provides workers with higher incomes that they spend locally on goods and services. And it makes our communities more resilient during economic downturns. Better employment and better opportunities for low-income Mainers is critical for the state’s future economic stability and growth.

We applaud the efforts of the legislature’s workforce committee. We support its ongoing work. We urge it to take a second look at CSSP.