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Maine needs to do more to help college students graduate
An educated work force earns more and stays employed longer during economic downturns.

At a Compact for Higher Education board meeting a few weeks ago, we received a powerful presentation from John Dorrer, the head of the Maine Department of Labor's Center for Workforce Research and Infrastructure.

Dorrer and his group are a fine resource for the state – the place to go to understand the ways in which the Maine work force is changing and its implications for our future.

I was particularly struck by two of Dorrer's slides: The first is titled "Why invest in your future" and plots median weekly earnings for each level of education. As you would imagine, this graph shows a strong upward trend: the more education one receives, the higher the weekly earnings.

On the same graph the unemployment rate is graphed against levels of education. This shows a strong downward trend; that is, unemployment is much lower for those with college or advanced degrees.

Dorrer plots the income line in green and the unemployment line in red. The result is striking as a graphic representation of why it is important to continue with one's education, whatever one's age happens to be. Many of us thought that a large representation of this chart should be displayed at the entrance of all schools, colleges and universities in Maine.

Dorrer ends his presentation with another powerful graph showing the global supply of college graduates.

This graph depicts the future supply of college graduates for the United States, the European Union and China. The graph shows the United States and the E.U. each producing approximately 2.5 million college graduates in 2015 and China producing almost twice as many by that time frame.

Clearly this should be a wake-up call for U.S. higher education.

Our public university system, once the finest in the world, is losing global position. Symptomatic of this is the inability of our public systems to convert incoming freshmen into college graduates.

A recent study by economist Mark Schneider noted only 33 percent of those entering the University of Massachusetts at Boston graduate in six years, less than 41 percent graduate from the University of Montana, 44 percent from the University of New Mexico. The national average – again at six years or 150 percent of the normal time – is 51.6 percent.

The University of Maine system is 57.9 percent, below the New England average of 61.2 percent, according to data from highered.org, for full-time students entering the system in 2001 and graduating by 2007.

The University of Maine's performance, while an improvement over the national average, is still disturbing – fewer than six in 10 entering freshmen graduate.

Chancellor Richard Pattenaude has acknowledged completion rates as one of his highest priorities. The system has strengthened its programs to support incoming freshmen – but much, much more is needed.

We are fortunate in Maine to have two nonprofits that have done particularly good work on assessing the causes for our university dropout rates and developing ways to address them – the Mitchell Institute and the MELMAC Education Foundation. Both organizations provide support for entering freshmen. MELMAC, in particular, has developed a series of innovative approaches with positive results.

MELMAC's research suggests that most students leave in the first or second year and that financial issues are the single biggest reason for leaving. Moreover – and this is startling – fully 36 percent of those who leave never go back to school, anywhere. This group, the majority of whom are men, are lost to the higher education system.

This is a problem growing by the year, and one we simply must address as a state and a nation. Just now there is much debate about the cost of health care. Less discussed but just as important is the fact that increases in the cost of a university education have matched increases in the cost of health care over the past 20 years.

One of the high school guidance counselors at our compact meeting related the fact that she plugged in her own family's data into a program to determine how much to start saving each month for her young pre-schooler's college education. The answer came back at $1,500 per month – higher than her current mortgage payment and simply not possible – even though she has a master's degree and her husband has a Ph.D. and teaches at the University of New Hampshire.

As we look forward, we must do more to ensure that a U.S. college education is affordable and that those starting college have the support needed to make it through.

Check the charts.