As a lifelong learner, Jason Judd already has three degrees under his belt, and he’s not done yet.

That makes sense for the head of Educate Maine, a Portland nonprofit that champions workforce education. But the degrees from the University of Maine, the University of Southern Maine and Northeastern University that advanced Judd’s career also have left him saddled with college debt.

“When it comes to college, I’ve always made practical choices, looking for a great value as well as a great education,” said the 40-year-old Lewiston resident. “I worked several jobs during college, and got a lot of scholarships, but I am still paying thousands in student loans every year.”

That soon may change. Under a proposal to overhaul the Opportunity Maine tax credit program, recent college graduates who live and work in Maine would be eligible for up to $2,000 a year in college debt relief. The lifetime benefit would be capped at $25,000.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average Maine college graduate owes $33,000 in loans. It is the lowest debt load in New England, but carried by those who can least afford to pay it — Maine college grads earn $38,000 a year, $5,000 less than the New England average.

This month, in her State of the State address, Gov. Janet Mills announced she wanted to simplify and expand the state’s existing college debt relief program, which was aimed at science, technology and math graduates, and offer it to all recent graduates who live and work in Maine.

“School debt is a heavy burden that prevents young people from starting a business, affording a mortgage or paying their bills and achieving their full potential,” Mills said in her address. “It is simply unacceptable.”

This $42.1 million overhaul would broaden eligibility to any recent graduate with student debt, regardless of what kind of degree they got, where they got it or what type of work they do now, as long as they have a job and make Maine their home, Mills said.

Under these new terms, another 40,000 people would be eligible to benefit from the revamped Opportunity Maine program, officials estimate. The old program, with its STEM focus and burdensome rules, had helped about 20,000 people defray their school loans.

Graduates would claim the benefit by itemizing student loan payments on their annual tax returns. A dollar-for-dollar refundable tax credit would be applied against any tax liability they have, with the remainder being issued as part of the graduate’s annual refund check.

Any existing or new full-time Maine resident would be eligible. Participants must have earned an associate, bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degree since 2007 and work at least part-time, which is defined as working at least 936 hours in a year and earning $12,000.

She noted the proposal’s bipartisan beginnings. Sen. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, sponsored a college debt relief bill, LD 798, pending in the tax committee. The committee has voted in favor of the bill, but is awaiting the formal cost estimate necessary to be considered by the full Legislature.

The Mills plan would cap the yearly benefit at $2,000, which is slightly lower than the $2,100 average annual benefit awarded under the existing program, for a total cost of $42.1 million. Pouliot wanted to cap the annual reimbursement at $2,500.

Under Mills’ proposal, Maine would reimburse Judd for half of the $4,000 he pays each year to retire the loans he took out to pay for his graduate degree from USM and his doctorate from Northeastern. He is still paying off his bachelor’s, but that debt is too old to be covered under Mills’ plan.

Leveraging financial freedom

Some of his friends and colleagues who would take advantage of the program would probably use the financial freedom it would afford them to buy their first home or start a family, but Judd said he would probably use the benefit to retire his college debt in five years instead of 10.

“Financial independence would be its own reward,” Judd said. “Plus, with my job, I’m always expected to keep up my education, and I’d decided that I was not going to take on anymore debt until I’d paid off what I had. This would free me up to do that in the future, if necessary.”

But the professional benefits of an aggressive college debt relief program might overshadow the personal one, Judd said. The program would give Maine employers, including Judd, a powerful recruiting tool when prospecting for future employees.

“Retiring student debt is a critical workforce development strategy,” Judd said. “It’s a great way to keep our young people in Maine, and recruit new people to come to Maine, and we need that if we want to stay competitive as a state and meet our projected workforce needs. “

Analysts at the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a nonpartisan research and policy organization, said there is a lot to celebrate about the proposal, but they would like to maximize the impact by restoring Pouliot’s $2,500 annual cap and cutting the $12,000 a year income requirement.

“I think it’s a really great expansion and simplification of a program that wasn’t working,” analyst Arthur Phillips said. “It’s exciting, but there’s more to be done, like making college affordable on the front end and improving the child care system, the workforce behind the workforce.”

 

filed under: