It is a Maine urban legend: The state is near rock-bottom when it comes to its high school graduates going on to college compared to other states.
But that legend is flat-out wrong, according to a number of educational experts who have studied the matter. Rather than being near the bottom among states, Maine is actually in the middle of the pack when it comes to its high school graduates going on to college.
The same holds true for the percentage of the state’s population holding bachelor’s degrees.
In its recently released report, Measuring Up 2000, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education gave Maine a C plus for college “participation.”
“A high proportion of Maine’s young adults [ages 18 to 24] are enrolled in education or training beyond high school,” the report concludes. “But only a fair percentage of high school students go on to college immediately after high school.”
Though wrong, the legend about the paltry number of Mainers going on to college, often repeated by policy makers and journalists, has been a beneficial spur. It has forced Maine lawmakers to focus on higher education, and the ability of Maine students to afford it and get into the state university and technical college systems.
The spurious figures date at least from the late 1980s, originating in murky Maine data in a federal survey that looked at the rate at which states’ high school graduates enrolled in college.
In both 1986 and 1988, the first years of the biennial federal survey, the University of Maine System failed to fill out certain parts, according to Thomas Mortenson, publisher of the monthly newsletter Postsecondary Education Opportunity. Because of that, “Maine looked awful.”
According to Mortenson’s analysis, when the data was straightened out, Maine leapt from 50th in 1988 to 24th in 1992.
In 1998, Maine ranked 16th, according to Mortenson.
The survey asks postsecondary institutions for the state of residence of their first-time freshmen and whether they graduated from high school in the prior 12 months.
According to the 1986 and 1988 surveys, less than 18 percent of Maine high school graduates enrolled in college within 12 months.
When the UMS figures became “credible” in 1992, Mortenson said, the number shot up to 39.4 percent.
In 1994, Maine slipped to 37.3 percent, but rose to 39.1 percent in 1996, and jumped to 43.4 percent in 1998.
Maine’s rise from 1994 to 1998 was the largest in the nation, Mortenson noted, and came at a time when the national average slipped from 40 percent to 38.8 percent.
According to another expert, the legend of Maine’s poor college attendance performance was reinforced in a 1997 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, a federal agency, that looked at the percentage of a state’s total population enrolled in postsecondary education within that state.
David Silvernail, director of the Center for Educational Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine, said that the report ranked Maine 47th.
Maine was dragged down in those calculations because the state has a relatively large percentage of residents aged 65 or older compared to other states. In addition, about half of Maine high school graduates leave the state to enroll in college. That is one of the highest rates in the nation.
Skeptics would argue that starting college is not the same as completing it.
But according to Gordon Donaldson, an education professor at the University of Maine, the state scores well in this area.
Donaldson said that Maine students don’t fare that well if one looks at those who complete bachelor’s degrees in four years, because they don’t have the finances to do it that fast.
But if one looks at those who finish in five or six years, having worked while in school and reduced their course loads accordingly, Maine ranks on the higher end nationally at around 60 percent, he said.
Looking at the overall picture, Walt Harris, director of the Center for Research and Evaluation in the College of Education at the University of Maine, said, “I don’t think we’re so horrible. We’re pretty good. But we have a ways to go.”
Mortenson has a similar view.
“It’s not as good as it could be,” he said in a telephone interview from his office in Iowa. “People without college degrees just don’t make it anymore. In the past 30 years, people with college degrees have seen their real incomes going up, while people without college degrees have seen their real incomes going down.”
In the August issue of his newsletter, Mortenson wrote that in 1998, a male with a high school diploma had an average income of $30,318, compared to $57,801 for one with a bachelor’s degree. Over a working lifetime of 40 years, the man with the bachelor’s degree will earn about $1.1 million more.
In 1998, families headed by a person with a high school diploma had income that averaged $48,434, compared to $85,423 for a family headed by a person with a bachelor’s degree.
Mortenson wrote that a state’s per capita personal income increases with the proportion of those 25 and older who have a bachelor’s degree. “In 1998, each 1 percent gain in the proportion of the population with a bachelor’s degree added $693 or 2.7 percent to state per capita personal income.”
For Maine, the level of educational attainment is more important than the number of students who go to college, according to state Education Commissioner Duke Albanese.
Many observers and policymakers have lamented that just 19 percent of Maine’s population has a bachelors degree or better. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, based on 1990 census data, that percentage ranks Maine smack in the middle of states, tied for 25th.
However, it leaves Maine with the lowest percentage in New England, well below the 27 percent in Massachusetts and Connecticut, which tied for first in the nation with Colorado and Maryland.
“In comparison to New England, Maine doesn’t fare that well,” Albanese said.
According to Silvernail, the key to boosting the percentage of Maine’s population with bachelor’s degrees does not hinge on getting more kids into college.
Policymakers must work at getting more high school graduates in Maine to go to colleges within the state, or to make sure there are economic opportunities to return to for those who attend a college out of state, he said.
“If you leave the state to go to school, the more likely you are to stay out of the state after you graduate,” Silvernail said.