Editor’s note: This is a continuation of an ongoing series, Your School, that examines what is holding back teachers, principals, parents and communities from helping students realize their full potential, and aims to hold up promising efforts that other places might learn from. Along the way, please write to us with questions and ideas for coverage at mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

If Maine policymakers want to boost the share of residents with college degrees, experts say, the best place may not be the aging state’s high schools, where enrollment continues to decline.

Instead, they should look to the roughly 175,000 Mainers over 25 who started college but didn’t finish.

“That’s who we need to be serving,” said Ed Cervone, executive director of Educate Maine.

Cervone is part of a chorus of leaders in education policy working on a long-range plan to boost the number of adults with degrees or work credentials, concerned that a shortage of employees with the right training will hold back the state’s economic growth.

The effort, led by the Maine Development Foundation, has money behind it. The Lumina Foundation awarded $750,000 into Maine Adult Promise over the next three years, providing a mix of tuition assistance and guidance services for adults who return to college.

Tennessee, where the Republican governor led a push to expand free community college to all adults earlier this year, offers one model that Cervone said Maine could emulate.

“The demographics are incredibly similar and some of the politics are incredibly similar as well,” Cervone said.

Tennessee was the first in the country to offer free community college to every resident without a degree, an effort to address stubbornly high dropout rates and to raise the share of adults with degrees.

A study released last week showed that enrollment and student retention have risen at the state’s community colleges, but dropout rates have remained high, especially for poor and minority students, according to a report by Complete Tennessee.

The specific approach in Maine is still coming together, with a goal of getting 63,200 more adults through college by 2025. By that year, they want 60 percent of the population ages 25 to 64 to hold degrees or work credentials. As of 2016, that share was at roughly 43 percent.

[Maine Public: How the UMaine System is trying to keep young, skilled workers in state]

Getting adults back to school holds the biggest promise for hitting those numbers, but that comes with plenty of challenges.

“I’ve been doing this work for 24 years with adults, and they were the hardest for me to get them back, to think that they could even do it,” said Karen Keim, director of the Maine Educational Opportunity Center at the University of Maine, where she manages federal programs to provide counseling and support to adults seeking to start or return to college.

Keim said the mental and emotional barriers to returning to school add to the practical challenges, such as transportation and finances.

“Exposure to college is going to improve their income,” Keim said. “But if they didn’t finish, then all they’ve got is debt.”

[A bachelor’s degree for less than $10K? Maine university says it can happen]

To address those kinds of hurdles and fill perceived gaps in the state’s adult education system, Maine Adult Promise program earlier this year issued a call for help from other organizations. It wants two pilot projects to test the water, starting next summer.

“MAP’s priority is to create a stronger and more transparent system to reach adult learners where they are in their life or work and support them to achieve their education and career goals,” the project’s request for proposals states. It called existing programs carrying out that mission “fragmented” and “disjointed.”

Out of the pilot programs, the effort wants to take what works and apply it in other areas. Eventually, Cervone said, that could fuel advocacy for state government changes, starting with the upcoming 2018 gubernatorial election.

“I don’t see a viable candidate who doesn’t have a viable education and workforce agenda,” Cervone said. “And if you don’t have a plan for adults, then you don’t really have a plan.”

The stakes are higher in different parts of the state, according to census data.

Places like Standish, Old Orchard Beach, Brewer and Gardiner are among the communities where adult education successes could make the most difference.

Those towns have some of the largest populations over 25 and a higher-than-average share of those adults who had completed “some college,” as of the 2010 census.

Cervone said getting more adults to finish college would have immediate economic benefits. Other experts say that could have longer-term impacts on the next generation of students, too.

“It’s just basic logic: the people who have the biggest impact on your education are your parents,” said Tae Chong, a former member of the Portland school board.

Chong said he has found it more difficult politically to advocate for more funding for adult education, especially in competition with more money for early childhood education. He argues those shouldn’t be competing priorities.

“It’s this taboo about helping adults in poverty,” Chong said. “We expect them to make it on their own and we know that it’s not a level playing field. But if we say that we need everyone to participate in the economy, why not help those who are really close to the finish line?”

Did you go back to college later in life? Reporter Darren Fishell wants to hear about your experience. Contact him at dfishell@bangordailynews.com or 207-370-8834.

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Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.