Feb. 11--AUGUSTA, Maine -- College students are woefully and needlessly uninformed about the potential job opportunities, debt risk and starting salaries they'll face after they graduate, according to an assessment of the higher educational landscape as described by House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham.
On Monday, Berry proposed a bill that would create a website on which the public could view information about post-graduation prospects, broken down by institution and major.
The measure has the broad support of Maine's colleges and universities, as well as the State Chamber of Commerce.
Maine students have the seventh-highest average student debt in the nation. Sixty-seven percent of 2012 college graduates in Maine have student loans, averaging nearly $30,000 per graduate. That doesn't even include the debt held by students who start but never complete post-secondary education -- 54 percent of Maine's high school graduates start college, but only 32 percent finish.
The bill's passage would mean a student applying to Maine schools could look up how many graduates from a particular program were getting jobs in their fields, how much debt they had accumulated by the time they finished their education, and whether they could afford their loan payments with the starting salaries being offered.
Students, then, could make more informed decisions about where and what to study, Berry said.
The state already collects and maintains a database containing much of the information that Berry's proposal would make public, through a joint initiative of the state's departments of education and labor.
"Maine students are asking important questions: If I graduate on time, what are the chances I'll find a job in my field in Maine? If I do, will I earn enough per month to live and pay off my student debt?" Berry said. "For the first time, Maine now has the data to provide students with real-time, accurate answers to these questions, but we are not yet sharing this data with our young people."
One of those young people, Megan Phelps, testified Monday before the Legislature's workforce committee, which held a public hearing on the bill. She said Berry's bill would make it easy for young people to know what they were getting into before heading off to college.
Phelps, a Southwest Harbor native and Bowdoin College junior who is studying government and legal studies, plans to become a lawyer. She told lawmakers that online information like that laid out in Berry's bill would be "a significant resource for all Maine students."
"At one meeting in the Student Aid Office, the rep I was meeting with said 'It's a good thing you want to be a lawyer, otherwise I don't know how you'd manage these loans,'" she said.
Phelps said that now that she's taken the maximum amount of federally guaranteed loans -- with law school, and additional borrowing, on the horizon -- she's locked into a career path. That's fine, because she's still got her mind set on a career. But she says it would have been nice to know what her debt would look like when she started college rather than finding out at the end.
John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System, said he supports the bill, and the goal of providing prospective students with more information with which to make decisions. But he said he wouldn't want to dissuade students from pursuing a discipline based on salary alone.
Berry's bill would also create a commission to oversee and implement the database and help guide policy decisions. Fitzsimmons said he wouldn't want the commission stepping on the toes of his board of trustees.
"Anything about the direction we should go, based on what we find, belongs to our board of trustees, not a commission," he said. "They understand, and are closest to, our students and care deeply what happens."
The workforce committee will consider the bill during an upcoming work session.
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