Education has long been called the great equalizer, especially for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Having a college degree can increase lifetime earnings by nearly $1 million, and college graduates are significantly less likely to fall into poverty at any point during adulthood.

Yet, as a larger percentage of high school graduates in Maine choose to enroll in college, it is becoming increasingly clear that, for the most vulnerable students, college can be far from equalizing.

Almost half of all first-time, full-time college students who enroll in the University of Maine System are first generation, meaning their parents don’t have a bachelor’s degree. Many other students struggle with financial instability, making it exceedingly difficult for them to succeed at the college level.

On top of it all, Maine has one of the highest average student debt loads in the nation at $31,000. And nearly one-fifth of the state’s residents have taken on debt to attend college but never finished a degree, which can make it exceedingly difficult to keep up with loan payments.

The University of Maine System has worked for decades to try to improve both college access and completion, but it is clear there is much more work to be done.

Between 2002 and 2016, the University of Maine at Augusta, the University of Maine at Fort Kent and the University of Maine at Machias all saw graduation rates decline. In that same span, only the University of Maine in Orono and the University of Maine at Farmington had a graduation rate above 50 percent.

Every University of Maine System school has taken advantage of federal TRIO grants, which are intended to increase college access for students from first-generation or low-income backgrounds. And some, like the University of Maine at Augusta and the University of Southern Maine, are piloting programs to help remove some of the barriers first-generation and low-income students face.

But still, the university system is in need of more ambitious solutions.

Outside of Maine, Georgia State University in Atlanta has been successful at boosting graduation rates. Between 2003 and 2016, the six-year graduation rate for low-income and first-generation students rose from just 32 percent to 54 percent as a result of major innovations.

The university launched a predictive analytics platform to identify struggling students, so academic advisers can get alerts and reach out if students do something to jeopardize their chance of graduating on time. It also created a supplemental instruction program in more than 200 courses with traditionally high rates of students earning D’s and F’s, to pair freshman and sophomores with peer mentors who previously excelled in the courses.

Within the state, Family Futures Downeast is one example that is starting to see encouraging results.

Groups of adult students attend free classes for a year, either at the University of Maine at Machias or Washington County Community College, where they earn credits that can transfer toward an associate’s or bachelor’s degree track at any University of Maine System institution. They also receive technology and transportation help, and their children receive high-quality child care.

The program is only in its second year, but nine of the first 10 participants completed the program in 2016, and each of them went on to enroll as part-time or full-time students. This year, the program has 15 students.

There are examples of schools and organizations trying to make a difference, but what’s lacking is a broader, bolder push. That’s not just the responsibility of the university system, but also of lawmakers and the governor to incentivize and fund efforts that will actually make education an equalizing force.

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