What’s in it for me?

That’s what many soon-to-be Maine college grads are asking in reply to the state’s current plea to stay and work. With too many retiring baby boomers and few millennials to take their place, treacherous seas may be ahead for a state that was once able to comfortably offer jobs to most of its population in an economy shaped by natural resources.

Maine desperately needs to restrain the departure of its college-aged population. Right now, the state has Opportunity Maine, an incentive program that reimburses Maine grads who continue to live and work here, but is that enough?

In a 2006 paper, University of Southern Maine professor Charles Colgan said that tourism “define[s] the Maine economy.” Eight years later, it continues to add revenue.

Out-of-staters can’t wait to visit Vacationland. But isn’t this a paradox? How are we luring in those who know little about Maine while allowing those educated for at least four years, and in some cases raised in Maine, to vanish after receiving a degree?

If you were to ask any of us 20-somethings why we are choosing to leave the state, we would likely say “there are more options” or “I want to see something different.” However, all of our responses would be followed up with “but I’d love to come back,” and, “it’s a great place to raise a family.”

We expect to come back to the beautiful Pine Tree State to raise children, coach high school teams and maybe take a crack at municipal government. But the age at which we are stepping away is the most crucial for population sustainability and the economic health of the state. If this age gap, combined with a decreasing population, continues to widen, we will be disappointed to find an unfamiliar state when, or if, we choose to return.

Career options are becoming narrower as our job creation rates drop — Maine was one of three states seeing negative growth in 2012-2013 — and, so far, a solution has yet to be found.

As one of five states without a city exceeding 100,000 in population, Maine lacks a central hub for booming business and thriving entertainment. Obviously, a city of that type would change Maine’s unique, rugged, “off-the-grid” character. But such changes may prove essential if we are to avoid dips in population rates that present monumental challenges for Maine’s future.

While many of the proposals to address demographics in Maine have involved the creation of “zones” to push businesses to relocate or expand, not enough has been done to incentivize younger individuals to stay in Maine (or relocate from elsewhere).

These young people are unlikely to be buying homes, at least not yet. Getting them to stay in Maine will mean subsidizing those who are providing quality, affordable housing for recent graduates. This could operate in the same way that we currently offer incentives or tax abatements as a means to stimulate job creation in Maine. And such incentives should be made conditional upon passing these incentives on to their tenants and residents in lower housing costs. These neighborhoods would serve as hubs for interaction with a distinctive, innovative atmosphere made up of fresh talent or rookie entrepreneurs.

We also have to confront the reality that most recent graduates are starting their lives under the burden of student debt, which might push them to seek higher wages outside of Maine. Sustaining and enhancing Opportunity Maine with a more robust incentive could be the Legislature’s first mode of action to attempt to address this.

However, this could be supplemented with programs (offered in coordination with colleges and universities) educating recent graduates about federal opportunities to reduce debt’s impact such as loan consolidation, income-based repayment, or public service loan forgiveness. If students are aware of these options, perhaps staying in Maine might seem like more of a reality.

With hard economic times continuing for the foreseeable future, it’s going to be difficult for the state to prove to us it’s worth staying here, but we have to figure something out. “I’d love to come back” needs to be transformed into “I’d love to make it here.”

Liam Nee is a fourth-year journalism and political science student at the University of Maine where he writes for The Maine Campus and hosts or co-hosts three radio shows on 91.9 FM WMEB. Nee writes about Maine’s demographic issues in a blog titled ‘Emigrationland.’ He was invited to contribute a guest OpEd for the Maine Chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.