In this May 17, 2018, file photo, new graduates line up before the start of the Bergen Community College commencement at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Credit: Seth Wenig / AP

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Laura Cyr is the director of strategic projects at the University of Maine System. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. She is a member and co-leader of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

The fall semester is about to begin for teachers, students and parents. But in the midst of all of this planning, two cohorts of graduates have passed through 17 months of this pandemic.

Web searches for COVID graduations release a flood of suggestions on graduation announcements with pandemic themes, curtailed commencements and dire employment prospects. For these graduates, many of whom will carry student loan debt, the future is uncertain. Forbes reports that 45 million borrowers owe nearly $1.6 trillion in student loan debt.

Maine’s trajectory aligns with this nationwide trend. Maine is now 6th  in the nation for the highest average student debt with an average of $33,000 per student. This trend is startling and struggling Maine graduates deserve more than three months relief at a time.

Renewed concerns about graduates’ ability to repay seems to be fueling the revival of the Maine Commission to Study College Affordability and College Completion. In July, Gov. Janet Mills signed the bill to reinstate the commission. This year they will focus on adult learners, reducing barriers to degree completion, and limiting the burden of student debt. Their report and recommendations are expected in January.

The renewed focus on college affordability makes this the ideal time to reconsider an existing program to relieve the burden of student loan debt. The Educational Opportunity Tax Credit, more commonly known as the Opportunity Maine Tax Credit, offers a pathway to student loan payment relief for many Maine graduates.

However, the program remains underutilized, under-marketed and prohibitively complex. The last several legislative sessions have brought substantive revisions to the table. Legislators on both sides of the aisle advocated for simplifying the policy. However, none of the revisions gained traction and, as we all know, surviving and adapting to COVID changed our priorities for a period of time. Streamlining this program is an efficient way to achieve some of these goals.

Students and graduates have told us that student loan debt is keeping them from fulfilling their dreams. Their occupational choices are restricted not by interest or qualification, but by the salary that will allow them to meet their monthly student loan payments. Graduates are unable to save money for a down payment on a home because student loan payments use any reserve they might have had. They are  delaying becoming parents because they can’t afford student loan payments and the inevitable cost of daycare.

Now that we and our legislators can lift our focus beyond mere survival, it is time to reconsider ways to simplify the Opportunity Maine Tax Credit. Renewing the Commission to Study College Affordability and College Completion provides an opportunity to enhance an existing relief program by planning to simplify and expand the Educational Opportunity Maine Tax Credit. They will need to provide a report to the Maine Legislature by January 2022. When the next legislative session starts, our elected officials could have the tools in hand to realize the potential of this decade-old program. They should use those tools to build a more stable future for Maine graduates.