University of Maine students walk from the New Balance Field House to the Alfond Arena for their graduation ceremony, May 7, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

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Hope Carroll is an undergraduate communications student at the University of Maine. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the University of Maine or UMaine system. She is an intern for 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 University of Maine is one of only 3.7 percent of the nation’s degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the United States that are classified as having very high research activity. But yet, many Maine high school students do not view UMaine as a top choice for college.

It is essential that high school students are provided better education surrounding student loan debt. In turn, the state of Maine must invest more in their college students and the University of Maine System should aggressively promote itself as the most affordable option.

The university provides unique and eye-opening research opportunities all over the world, making UMaine a globally recognized university. And it does so while enabling students to experience national and local outdoor landmarks and enjoy a sense of close-knit community on campus.

But why is the unique experience of going to Maine’s only public research university at a comparatively low price overlooked by so many Maine high schoolers?

High school students don’t want to think about the rest of their lives, particularly the idea of owing tens of thousands of dollars before they even get a job. College is viewed throughout high school as a place for a fresh start, a way to meet new people and become independent. For high schoolers, oftentimes staying in their home state does not align with these views.

Instead of staying in state, Maine high schoolers look to schools like the University of New Hampshire or the University of Vermont as a place to find a “true college experience.” In reality, these schools may offer parallel experiences to UMaine while often costing Mainers almost twice or three times as much. Choosing to go to these schools for the same quality education puts students automatically behind in opportunities to make future life decisions that are important to them.

But should the responsibility of debt be put on the high schoolers themselves? Many of the adult figures in their life probably are struggling with debt themselves. It’s important for adults to discuss ways for high schoolers to limit their debt. But while this is important, the only way to effectively limit the cost of college and college debt will be from increased state appropriation towards higher education.

Currently, the average student loan debt in the state of Maine is $33,137 per borrower. This could be attributed to a variety of factors including Mainers going out of state for college but also the continued rise of cost in tuition. Over the last 40 years, net annual tuition revenue per student at Maine’s public higher education institutions has increased from $2,825 to $7,098. This increase has resulted in a larger share of the costs of higher education coming from student tuition, which has led to more debt for Mainers.

Although the university has been making strides in groundbreaking research, it must continue to be seen as an affordable option. Per-student public higher education appropriations from state government in Maine hit a peak in 1989 with $10,931 and has declined overtime, falling to $8,724 in 2021. This decline has occurred alongside rising educational costs and in order to keep up with these costs has resulted in an increase in tuition.

UMaine has many unique aspects that make it a top-ranked university nationally and internationally and students that attend are able to develop skills, experiences and connections that are critical for their future. But when you ask why a student chose UMaine, their first reason is more often than not affordability. In order for this to continue, not only must the state invest more in higher education but the University of Maine System also has a responsibility to do everything they can to moderate the costs wherever possible. If this is achieved, the state will have successful young people that go to UMaine for the cost but stay for the opportunities.