The June 30 Press Herald article “UMaine System Forecasts Sharp Fall in Enrollment This Fall, Continued Decline” highlights some of the significant dangers – personal and societal – of the drop in the number of people seeking degrees. two- and four-year colleges in Maine and across the nation.
As the article points out, a family’s income and financial resources factor into college enrollment and graduation rates. Yet, to fully understand the forces impeding college enrollment, we need to look beyond the cost of higher education in terms of traditional expenses such as tuition, housing, and meals. Instead, it’s important to think more broadly about the real and sometimes invisible costs of getting a degree — and how that tally keeps higher education out of reach for too many Maine families.
Maine’s colleges and universities all have proven ways to help close the financial gap between tuition fees and students’ ability to pay. These options include low-interest federal loans, on-campus study jobs, and need-based federal and institutional grants. These sources of support are vital for students and their families. But too often, they aren’t enough to overcome these and other barriers that low-income first-generation college students often face.
Through their own part-time jobs, many students contribute significantly to their household income. For these students, attending a four-year residential college away from home can mean less money for groceries, rent, and heat — for their parents and younger siblings.
Some high school students are important caregivers whose presence at home allows parents and guardians to work outside the home.
And some students don’t have access to the relatively small one-time funds that are needed to integrate into a new university setting.
In other words, a generous and carefully prepared financial aid package may not cover the true needs of students, and it may not cover miscellaneous and unforeseen expenses that may compound during students’ college careers and prevent them from completing their study plans. So what should we do?
We must begin by recognizing the higher impact of college costs on low-income students and expand our understanding of the true needs of students on an individual basis. We also need to create and maintain, within our communities and at colleges and universities, more funds to help students meet additional expenses – things like medical bills, one-time program fees, tuition increases. rent, increased utility costs, and professional certification and exam fees. .
At the Mitchell Institute, where we provide our fellows with $10,000 over four years – in addition to offering additional funding to help pay for emergencies, internship-related travel, and exposure to career-related opportunities – experience tells us that two things make a difference in college enrollment and persistence to some degree: providing individualized supports for students, and making sure students know those supports are available for the full of their academic career.
If we hope to sustain Maine’s economy and help young people realize their full potential throughout their lives, we must fully reflect the true need in the cost of higher education, and we must, through investments public and private, to fully meet this need.
Hardly a week goes by without industry and business leaders talking about the significant challenges of securing a skilled and forward-looking workforce. There are thousands of young people with high aspirations who want to answer the call. We must match their ambition with reciprocal levels of support to ensure they start their university studies and reach the finish line.
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