AUGUSTA, Maine ― Maine lawmakers are seeking to tackle the problem of mounting student debt in their next session, including exploring plans that could make college tuition free for students who agree to pay back the state after they graduate and get a job.
A panel of Maine legislative leaders advanced bills Wednesday introduced by Senate leaders that were designed to encourage more Maine students to attend colleges and universities by reducing costs.
“Some people who’d love to be able to pursue higher education are just scared by the prospect of getting through school and being saddled with a huge student debt,” said Assistant Senate Republican Leader Roger Katz of Augusta.
Students at four-year public and private institutions in Maine graduate with more than $26,000 in debt on average, according to the Project on Student Debt. The problem of soaring student debt has gained attention across the country, prompting states to start looking at ways to ease its burden.
Katz wants the state to examine a pilot program being developed in Oregon that would allow students to go to school tuition- and loan-free. Students would have 3 percent deducted from their post-graduation paychecks for 24 years, money that would go into a state fund, which would then pay for future students. If the pilot project is approved by the Oregon Legislature, it would be the first country to implement such a program.
Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland has proposed a similar but broader bill, under which the state’s education committee would examine multiple methods, including Oregon’s model, to come up with a plan for college affordability that works for Maine, he said.
Both measures are still being fleshed out and details are not yet finalized. But they provide a peek into what could become a significant issue next session.
“If we don’t get students over that first hurdle of how can I pay for school, then we’re really not doing what we should be doing as a state to ensure that we have the best chance to be competitive and successful around all the different industries,” Alfond said.
Katz acknowledged that implementing an idea like Oregon’s will be a challenge. Questions remain about how Oregon would fund the project at first because it would be several years before those who are receiving the loans would begin to pay back the state. But Katz said he hopes it’s something Maine will take on.
“If this were simple, it would have been done before now,” he said. “But it is a really interesting concept to explore.”