PORTLAND, Maine — If independent Portland lawmaker Ben Chipman’s proposed legislation passes, college tuition could be covered for high-achieving Maine high schoolers living in poverty.

Under LD 962, “An Act to Increase Access to Higher Education,” students living in Maine households making less than $30,000 annually could go to college in the state without paying tuition if they graduate in the top 25 percent of their senior classes academically.

“What we’re finding now is a high number of part-time students who have to take on two or three jobs while going to school, and who take seven or eight years to get a four-year degree,” Chipman said. “And then when they do get out, they’re overloaded with student loan debt.”

Still many more students, the state representative said, don’t go on to higher education at all because the financial barriers are too high.

Chipman said his district, which includes parts of Portland’s Parkside and Bayside neighborhoods, has many college students and many low-income families. He said in talking with constituents on the campaign trail last fall, he found that making higher education more affordable for more people was important to many of them.

“The cost of higher education has gone up significantly, and has become out-of-reach for some people,” Chipman said. “[My bill] would help hundreds, if not thousands, of students in Maine.”

The bill has plenty of support; among 112 co-sponsors are Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and Assistant Minority Leaders in both the House and Senate, Alexander Willette, R-Mapleton, and Roger Katz, R-Kennebec, respectively.

Going into an April 11 Education and Cultural Affairs Committee work session on the proposed legislation, Chipman noted that 11 of the committee’s 14 members are co-sponsors of the bill, including Chairwoman Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cumberland, and ranking Republican Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville.

Maine Community College System legislative liaison Gary Crocker, representing the system, testified in favor of the bill during a Wednesday afternoon hearing in which no one spoke against it, Chipman said.

“We believe there is value in recognizing the academic merits of a student’s accomplishments in high school and tying that to success in college,” Crocker told the committee in prepared comments. “The creation of a fund to support merit scholarships will have great benefit for both the student and the state of Maine.”

If the committee decides to support the measure, Chipman said, it would then have to decide whether to recommend allocating state funding for it or determining a less direct way to implement it, by asking the University of Maine and Maine Community College systems to develop a certain number of tuition waivers for qualifying students.

Chipman also noted that the bill seeks to cover whatever tuition costs remain after grants have been subtracted, and the proposed legislation does not apply to room and board costs, which he acknowledged can be expensive.

He said 13 other states already have similar programs on the books for low-income high schoolers.

“If they can afford to do this, we need to find a way to pay for it, too,” Chipman said.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.