I spent only four years in college. This was a feat; most schools expect a year or two extra these days, but I wasn’t about to add to my already-substantial loans. Many friends took longer, and owe more, while an equal number dropped out early when they realized the debt they were facing. We’re all out of school now, well-educated and uniformly broke.
College does not guarantee a healthy paycheck, or employment in the field you study. That sort of success requires another few years at grad school, or a hot track like corporate IT work. But a degree does (or should) buy you social options. It is mandatory for our generation, as our parents’ high school diplomas were for them. You need it just ’cause, and most jobs beyond retail won’t look at you if you don’t have one.
This reality inspired Maine House Speaker Glenn Cummings to propose a bill making college application mandatory for high school students. According to a Portsmouth Herald article, “Maine ranks last in New England for college degree attainment,” and is also low on the national charts. This makes government and economic pundits uncomfortable. They cite the state’s “rapidly changing character” — meaning more money and development — as the need for a more studied and trained populace.
In other words, we need to look better on paper.
This is not a good argument, especially in Maine, and especially when it’s related to education. “College” is a Downeast insult, despite the aforementioned social weight it carries. The no-bullshit attitude that sees though image alone also denies that higher education has any worth. A few students I knew had to fight with their families to go to school; many others, of course, don’t bother to fight, or don’t want to go in the first place. Their minds won’t be changed by us graduates, either. Our degrees are worth their weight in social status, but the years of study behind them feel irrelevant outside school walls. We did not take on the enormous, life-binding weight of loan payments for irrelevancy.
Reacting to this, many of us have sought continuing education elsewhere. Maine offers an astounding variety of traditional and contemporary skills that, with the time and a small investment, you are welcome to learn. One friend studied timber-framing at the Shelter Institute; another, press printing with a local artisan. Still others have learned traditional wood joinery, knitting, farming skills, or motorcycle repair. They were unsatisfied by college and chose to fill in the gaps it left.
We can plug those gaps at the source, and improve Maine’s educational standing, by connecting alternative-ed programs with mainstream colleges. Many schools elsewhere have made similar steps; my high school, a trade school, allowed seniors to take courses at a local community college for credit in both places. Small art schools will often partner with a large university, giving students better academics and more focused technical trainings. These programs allow each institution to do what it does best, and offer students a more rounded body of knowledge.
A composite program, of practical and academic education, would attract more students and give them their money’s worth as graduates. Their contributions would genuinely improve the state, not just its image. But that image would bear the stamp of an education unique to Maine.
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Clayton Cameron: firstname.lastname@example.org