It’s time to invest in students, higher education and our future

By Sen. Mike Tipping
Recently, I met with some of the students and faculty at the University of Maine who are working on implementing and commercializing a process — based on decades of research — using waste forest products to make clean biofuels. The company that has grown out of their work is creating a new manufacturing facility at the former site of the Lincoln mill.

This is a particularly clear and immediate example of a much broader dynamic: Investment in students can help to build stronger communities and a better future for our state.

Last week, the Education Committee held a public hearing on my bill to reduce tuition and promote enrollment at public universities in Maine. It would provide 50% tuition waivers for up to four years for students who graduate from high school in 2023, 2024 or 2025.

It also helps former students who had to pause their pursuit of higher education to return to school and finally earn their degree. It’s similar to the tuition waivers that are now in place for Maine’s community colleges for the same period.
I was grateful for the broad turnout at the hearing. Dozens of students and educators spoke in favor or submitted written testimony, as did the University of Maine System, the Maine Education Association and the Maine Center for Economic Policy. A dozen economists from across the state wrote a letter making clear the positive impacts of the bill.
Whether or not this particular proposal advances, this is an important conversation to have. For decades now, Maine has been failing to invest in higher education in general and in our students in particular.
Through the eighties, nineties and early 2000s, post-secondary education funding in Maine was cut or frozen and students picked up the slack, with tuition at public universities rapidly rising. Maine now has one of the lowest rates of students who attend college immediately after high school of any state in the country, and it’s falling: from 63% in 2015 to 54% in 2021.
We now place one of the highest debt loads on our students in the country. The Institute for College Access & Success has classified us as one of ten “high-debt states.” Compared to the other states on that list, we have a lower median income, making it harder to pay back debt in Maine and leading to increased outmigration.
Many of the problems we face as a state – from younger Mainers leaving to a lack of teachers, nurses and engineers, to new economic and environmental threats – can best be solved by investing in our students.
I’ve seen the importance of higher education in my own life – both of my parents were the first in their extended families to go to college – and we all know the importance of the University of Maine for our region. If you would like to provide your perspective on this legislation, you can email the members of the Education Committee at EDU@legislature.maine.gov.
If you have thoughts on any of the issues before the legislature, or if you need any help with state services or agencies, please feel free to email me at Mike.Tipping@legislature.maine.gov or call my legislative office at 207-287-1515.

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