April 04, 2020

Measuring Up, sort of

To the old quip that success in life largely consists of choosing your parents carefully, a new study of higher education adds that academic success might depend on picking your home state with equal care. Measuring Up 2000, from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in San Jose, Calif., suggests a couple of ways – one of them emphatic – that Maine could become the home-state choice much more often.

Measuring Up graded state performance in five areas: preparing school children for college; participation of residents; affordability; how promptly college students complete degrees; economic and social benefits from education. How well a state performed on this in-depth examination indicates the kinds of opportunities its residents will have – or not have – in formal education, the key in the information economy. Most of the data used came from 1998.Maine, according to the study, does a couple of things well. High-school students here are well prepared to succeed in college, as that measure and its corollary, completion rates, showed. Maine earned a B-plus in both areas. But in other areas it does poorly enough, that, if the state were a student, its parents would be spending a fair amount of time in the principal’s office. Its worst grade, an F, came in affordability.

Affordability is measured a couple of ways. It takes into account how much public or private colleges and universities cost in Maine, what sorts of financial aid students are getting and how those discounted college costs compare with state incomes. For instance, among top states the percent of family income compared with annual public college costs is 19 percent; in Maine, it is 30 percent, according to the study. For private schools, the best states reflect college costs at 30 percent of incomes; Maine’s are an incredible 86 percent. One clue to the reason for this is found in another area of study: How high are state grants to low-income families compared with the federal support through Pell Grants? The best states give slightly more to their low-income students, 106 percent, than what those students can get through the federal grants. But Maine offers to its students well-under one-third, 28 percent, of those same federal grants. So, in a state where income ranks 38th in the nation, students here end up borrowing nearly $600 more a year more than students in the most generous states. The annual difference of $3,617 in Maine to $3,094 in top states accumulates over four years and with interest to thousands of added dollars of debt for Maine students.

But it’s worse than that, because Maine’s other poor grade, an ungentlemanly C, came in the area of benefits. To take just one measure in this category, personal income in Maine as a result of residents holding a bachelor’s degree did not rise nearly as noticeably as in top states. Here the degree made a 6 percent difference; elsewhere it was nearly double that at 11 percent.

Taken together, the measures of affordability and benefits suggest that Mainers have a higher price to pay to get through school and fewer financial incentives if they do make it. That is an unhappy combination, although it does make the state’s B-plus in completion all the more remarkable. (What students might have learned while in college is unknown. Like other states Maine got an I for incomplete in this area because it lacked data to draw conclusions.)

The good news in these poor grades is that they are the same areas identified by state education officials as problems for Maine, and for the last couple of years lawmakers have been looking for ways to hold down university costs while increasing aid. What Measuring Up suggests is that Maine officials have zeroed in on the problem but now need to work on it as hard as its college students work on completing their degrees.

That means finding immediate and long-term ways to hold down public-college costs for students through scholarships, endowments, research and development funds that generate outside grants and support for bonding for capital projects. Measuring Up doesn’t rank states but the comparisons make it easy enough for state education officials here to look at what other states are doing and set goals for Maine.

Another way to look at solving the problem is through The Maine Idea, a proposal from University of Maine System Chancellor Terrance MacTaggart, which legislators will consider next session. The Maine Idea expands by $120 million the system’s operating and capital budgets, with the goals of preparing students for “life, work and stewardship in the 21st century;” increasing the number of college graduates; increasing the use of technology; working both with K-12 schools and businesses to improve education; and all the while maintaining the core operations of the system – for instance, by paying competitive salaries to keep good people or by funding a much-needed endowment for student financial aid with a $10 million match from the state.

Clearly, the students are doing their part; it is past time for state government to contribute its share.

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