AUGUSTA, Maine — In some ways, Erica Frederick-Rock is a typical — albeit nontraditional — college student in Maine.

Frederick-Rock, a 36-year-old biology student at the University of Maine at Augusta, has started and stopped college studies three times since she graduated from high school. She is on track to graduate from the University of Maine at Augusta in May.

That stop-and-restart approach to postsecondary education is how she’s perhaps atypical. Unfortunately, she said during a news conference Wednesday at the State House, one of the ways she’s typical is that she will graduate with $50,000 in student loan debt.

“I’m maxed out right now,” she said. “If there’s anything that we can do in order to defray the cost of student tuition, especially people such as myself who later in life decide they are not where they want to be, that would be amazing.”

A group of Maine lawmakers and educators has been working for the past year on the student debt problem, which nationally has overtaken credit cards and auto loans as the second-leading source of debt behind home mortgages. The 13-member commission, which presented its final report to the Legislature’s Education Committee on Wednesday, sought ways to decrease the cost of higher education for Mainers and eliminate barriers that force too many students out of college.

The commission found what most people know: college is expensive. Even students from families who earn $120,000 per year are typically forced to work part time and secure loans of some $20,000 per year to pay the cost of earning a four-year degree from the University of Maine system. Families earning $60,000 or less per year, and who assume the same amount of student loans, face an affordability gap of tens of thousands of dollars.

“Let’s suppose for a moment that you have accrued some level of student loan debt, you are out of school, and you’ve not even completed your degree,” said Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, a member of the Legislature’s Education Committee and the bipartisan College Affordability Task Force. “This is the reality for many Maine people. In fact, it is a reality for nearly a quarter million Maine people who’ve started some form of postsecondary education but haven’t completed that training. They are stranded learners.”

Rep. Mathea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, also an Education Committee and task force member, is one of the younger members of the Legislature. She and Pouliot both belong to the Legislature’s youth caucus.

“College debt is strangling my generation, and it’s setting our state back,” she said. “Mainers, and young Mainers in particular, are facing a quandary: more and more fields of employment require a college degree, and yet many Mainers are unable to go into the careers they would like to due to the price of college. This is creating a chain reaction that, for the first time, could leave the next generation worse off than those who came before them.”

The task force settled on several initiatives that will be debated in the coming weeks by the committee:

— Increasing the maximum award in the Maine State Grant Program from $1,000 to $2,500, and increasing grant awards by $250 for every college year a student completes.

— Urging the state to fund higher education institutions at the level that’s requested in exchange for the institutions minimizing tuition increases.

— Increasing transparency in college costs by publishing a list of average class fees by major for all publicly funded colleges and universities.

— Encouraging partnerships between higher education institutions to develop open education resources, textbook co-ops, and free or reduced-cost digital textbook options.

— Adopting “Game Changers” strategies developed by a group called Complete College America. The strategies include initiatives such as tying public funding for institutions to student performance and beefing up instructional support for students who would otherwise need remedial courses.

— Having the state set specific degree attainment goals and create a plan to reach them.

Representatives of Maine’s higher education sector, including University of Maine System Chancellor James Page, supported the task force’s findings and said its mere existence has moved the conversation forward.

“The work of the committee has brought together in a focused way so many parties that need now to find a way to work together,” he said.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.