In 2009, I graduated from high school in Kennebunk Maine and left for college. I planned to spend four years away and return better educated to live and work in my home state, but ten years later, I have not returned.
I was accepted to all eight schools that I applied to, but not a single Maine school was on that list. Why did I leave my home state to begin with?
In-state schools were not on my radar. Even my guidance counselors, advisors and teachers did not recommend them to me. My mother, a graduate of a Maine college, encouraged me to look elsewhere.
I was not alone in making the decision to look outside Maine for higher education. For the better part of a decade, Maine has lost almost 30 percent of college bound high school students to other states, many of whom will never return. According to data obtained from the Maine Department of Education, from 2010 to 2017, Maine had a total of 105,113 high school seniors. Of those, 61.5 percent (64,664) enrolled in two or four-year colleges, and 29.4 percent (18,982) attended schools out of state.
And despite our shared goal as a state to retain the best and brightest to help boost our communities and economy, many students at the top of their class leave Maine and never come back.
For example, at my former high school of Kennebunk High School, 80 percent of students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their class since 2013 attended college outside of Maine. Data provided by the school spanning a six-year period shows that only six of these top tier students chose a public university in Maine.
Students are leaving Maine to attend other state’s public colleges despite having to pay out of state tuition rates and the additional costs of living far away from home. Anecdotally, this shows that cost is not the deciding factor — at least for Kennebunk High School students — and that it is quality that matters most for these students when deciding on a post-secondary education.
Further, a recent analysis shows that just 68 percent of Maine’s first-time college students enrolled at public four-year institutions in 2016 chose to attend a public institution in Maine, down 11 percent from a decade earlier. Nationally, the trend only declined 5 percent.
We need to improve the higher education system in Maine to address growing problems elsewhere in our economy. I did not realize how powerful and attractive a state education system could be until I lived in Pennsylvania, where many of the top students attend Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh and Temple, all of which are nationally ranked public institutions. Maine only has one.
Yet in 2017, Maine spent $7,559 per full time enrolled student at our public colleges while Pennsylvania spends $4,122. How can Maine schools be losing in independent rankings?
The schools themselves are not the only reason why students are leaving, and many factors Maine can’t change. Some leave for warmer weather, some want a change of scenery and others want to live in a big city. As one individual I interviewed told me, two of his kids went out of state because they wanted to find a school away from the “cold, quiet, [and] lack of culture and diversity.”
Student migration out of state is a contributing factor to Maine’s financial and demographic woes. Maine develops young leaders, entrepreneurs and hard workers in high school, then passes them off to other states to reap the reward. A New York Times analysis of federal Department of Education data shows that Maine serves more students from other states than it sends away, though we don’t know the retention rates of either group.
Governor Mills stated her in inaugural address that attracting and retaining young, talented Mainers will be a top priority of her administration, but it will take more than talk to make a difference for all of us who have already left.
To provide incentive for Maine students to pursue higher education in their home state, we must offer them a product that competes with top schools in other areas of the country. Maine’s public college system needs to be made attractive to students who want a high-quality education in their own state.
To do so, Maine should align its higher educational programming with our economic needs to offer a pathway to employment in Maine. We should also continue reducing administrative and non-instructional expenses and refocus spending priorities on undergraduate instruction. This requires regularly reviewing current programs, as well as building and space utilization, to cut out spending that does not align with the needs of Maine’s economy.
These are the types of reforms that will offer Maine students a world class education at a cost they can easily afford and land them a job here in Maine.
As one Southern Maine native recently told me, “Opportunities abound elsewhere, and a lack of vision and willingness to think differently doesn’t help.”