The Widening Gap, part one

Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 in Investigation

The Widening Gap, part one

by Denise Tepler

PORTLAND – Laurie Davis, director of TRIO programs at the University of Southern Maine, is worried about the effects of the increasing financial aid gaps her students are experiencing. Davis is distressed that it is getting harder for the students who qualify for her programs – financially disadvantaged and first-generation college aspirants – to be able to afford in-state public colleges and universities. 

“We were seeing an average $8,000 to $10,000 gap between the cost of attendance and the total financial aid package students were offered at University of Maine System schools, and this year that gap is increasing,” Davis said. “And, most of our students have an 'expected family contribution' of zero. They are being told they need to take parent-plus loans or alternative student loans to cover the gap. Many of their families cannot qualify, and, in good conscience, I cannot recommend that a student takes on $40,000 in additional debt for a USM degree.”

Federally funded TRIO programs, such as those run by Davis, serve some of Maine’s most needy students in five locations around the state: at Bowdoin College, USM and the University of Maine campuses in Orono, Farmington and Presque Isle. Though the programs differ somewhat from location to location, their overall goal is to provide what Davis calls, “Pell Grant insurance.”  “These are efforts to make certain that students who are likely to qualify for federally funded financial aid will have the tools for college access and success.” 

Probably the best known of the TRIO programs is Upward Bound. Students, whose high schools must be qualified for the program based on a financial needs profile, are selected in their sophomore year. Students are chosen because they have academic ability and desire to pursue it but few family resources. Many would be the first in their family to attend college. 

At USM the program includes a six-week summer residential stay on the Gorham campus and academic year services including help with career choice, SAT preparation, study skills and help with succeeding at college applications. Students are expected to apply and go directly to college with no break. The program tracks their persistence through sophomore year of college though officially services cease with high school graduation. 

The federal TRIO programs have a good record of getting students into college and helping them stay there, but relatively minor financial challenges loom large for this population. Davis gives an example: “We have a student at Orono in the honors program this year, and I got a call from Mom in December saying that they got a letter that they owed $600 and that her son would have to leave school. Fortunately, we were able to help them out.”

Maine has an economic stake in enabling more students to attend college. The Maine Compact for Higher Education, a joint effort of the Maine Development Foundation and the Maine Community Foundation, believes that 39,500 more bachelor’s and associate degree holders are necessary by the year 2019 in order for Maine to thrive economically.  ( http://www.collegeforme.com/case_for_college.html )  The business-driven Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education has focused on Maine’s lag behind other New England states in the percentage of our population with degrees and our lower degree-completion rates for young people. (http://www.mainecee.org/documents/PressPacketFinal.pdf ) They are concerned about Maine’s competitiveness and workforce readiness for increasingly technically complex jobs. There are now a number of organizations and coalitions in Maine dedicated to increasing Maine’s overall educational attainment.

A couple of important statistics are standing in the way.  Maine students graduate with a much higher debt load on average than students in other states. In 2009, Maine had the third highest debt load per student in the country. (http://projectonstudentdebt.org/state_by_state-view2010.php?area=ME )  With lower than national average incomes, paying back student debt is a greater burden for Maine’s college graduates. In-state tuition and fees at Maine’s public colleges and universities are higher than the national average of $7,605 per year ( http://www.collegeboard.com/student/pay/add-it-up/4494.html) as well. Tuition and fees for 2009 at University of Maine full-time was $10,142 (http://www.famemaine.com/files/Content/Publications/Postsecondary_Guide_2010.pdf ).

Higher than average costs and indebtedness combined with lower than average incomes makes increasing educational attainment in Maine a tall order. With financial aid packages leaving even the neediest students with a major gap between what’s offered and what's needed, Maine’s state university system is being priced out of the reach of some. Those students who are very high academic achievers may find that endowment-rich, in-state, private colleges, or even other states' universities, might offer them a financial aid package that will leave them less indebted at the end of four years, despite much higher tuition and fees, than would attending UMO.

Kim and John Cornish are both Maine public servants and attended in-state schools. Their daughter, graduating this year from public high school, got in to both UMO and the State University of New York Environmental Science and Forestry School at Syracuse University. Kim Cornish really wanted her daughter to attend UMO and stay nearby, but, “Our decision has to be based on finances,” she said. “Attending SUNY ESF instead of Orono will save us about $1,000 a year.”

How is it that an out-of-state university, carrying with it non-resident premiums, costs less than an in-state public school? 

Some Upward Bound/TRIO program students are finding themselves in a similar situation. TRIO's Davis commented, “We encourage the very top achievers to apply to Colby, Bates or Bowdoin, where they often receive very generous packages, which will leave them with less debt than attending UMaine System schools. But for the kids who are not quite up to that level we try to encourage them to apply to small private colleges in the Midwest or in Pennsylvania. We’ve had students receive very generous packages from schools like Muhlenberg College. But many of our kids are very reluctant to go so far away.”

The community college system is seen by many policy makers in Maine as a panacea for tuition-gap woes. For those who know what they want in a four-year degree when they start at a Maine community college, this system can work very well and save thousands of dollars in tuition costs over spending all four years at a UMaine System school. But for those who are uncertain, and end up changing their majors, transitioning from one institution to another can mean a loss of many credits, already paid for, which must be made up at the more expensive university.   

Abbi Shirk, a 2011 University of Southern Maine graduate who will attend law school next year, started at Southern Maine Community College. “I was able to make the system work for me but there were a number of problems along the way. Some of them were caused by my not informing myself fully but others were a result of rules that just made it more difficult. My credits all transferred over, but I have lots of friends who lost credits because they changed majors, or didn’t anticipate what their ultimate degree would require.” 

Given the financial aid gap, Davis does find herself more and more often steering students into Maine’s community college system where tuition and fees are much lower. But, from her perspective, this is far from ideal. “We expect our students to get four-year degrees, but when they have to make transitions ... well, transitions are places where we lose students. Moving from community college to a four-year institution in Maine is still not seamless for many.”

The answers as to how to decrease Maine young people’s higher education debt and improve financial access to Maine’s four-year institutions are unclear. Yet, it is a problem that begs to be tackled. With many students struggling to find ways to pay for college, a high school college counselor quoted another TRIO program director as saying, “I used to tell kids, anyone can go to college. Now I’m not so sure.”

In a future article, Denise Tepler will examine the multiple streams of money that make up student financial aid and attempt to find the source of the widening gap.

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