It’s been rated one of the top 10 best public policies in the nation, and compared to the GI Bill, which helps finance the college educations of war veterans. It’s been called “a program that promises great things for Maine’s economic future.” And it could save you thousands of dollars.
Opportunity Maine is that rare type of public policy — one that enjoys true bipartisan support, and one that is expected to actually work. Signed into law in July 2007, the program serves both to lower young people’s debt and to keep them in Maine by providing graduates of Maine colleges (two- or four-year) with tax credits as reimbursements (a check, like your tax refund) for student loan payments, as long as they continue to live, work, and pay taxes in-state. Alternately, if a Maine business decides to take over a graduate’s loan payments, that employer can benefit from the tax credit. The program applies to loans taken out since January of this year.
Ultimately, program advocates (including the League of Young Voters and several state legislative candidates) say that Opportunity Maine will raise Maine incomes and employment rates, which are suffering due to the state’s low education levels and degree-completion rates.
“This will raise aspirations and, intern, increase degree enrollment and completion, economic development, and average incomes,” Opportunity Maine executive director Rob Brown wrote in a Bangor Daily News op-ed earlier this year. “By virtually eliminating the burden of debt for Maine’s workers, we will strengthen our economy for the long haul.”
However, student, college, and business awareness is still a major hurdle for the program, Brown says. Some Maine colleges and universities, such as Colby College and the University of Maine system, encourage all students sign the Opportunity Maine form as a matter of course, knowing that it’ll help them if they choose to stay in the state, and won’t apply if they don’t. But lots of students don’t know if they’re eligible, or don’t understand how the program works. The program’s Web site (opportunitymaine.org) is extremely helpful in this regard, but here, we’ll try to clear up some of the major questions.
HOW TO SIGN UP Students enroll in the Opportunity Maine program by signing a contract that reads, in part: “The student agrees to live and work in Maine during any period where he/she seeks to claim the educational opportunity tax credit. He/she may move from Maine at any time, but may not claim the credit for tax periods while a non-resident.” The form can be printed off the program’s Web site, or students can ask for it at their financial aid office. The contract doesn’t force those who sign it to stay in the state. But if a student does sign and graduate, the contract serves as paperwork to ensure the tax credit will apply.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT Students proceed with their education, get their associate’s or bachelor’s degree (studying abroad is fine, as long as they’re in Maine for the rest of the time), and — with the help of the financial aid office — file their contract with the state. Then they get a job, in Maine, and claim the tax credit on their personal income tax form. (Or their employer does, on its return.)
WHO IT HELPS Students (from Maine or from out-of-state) and in-state businesses.
WHO IT DOESN’T HELP Graduate students, students who don’t graduate, graduates who leave Maine, Mainers who go to college out-of-state.