Of the the voices airing ideas on the subject of education reform this election season, only 2014 gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler is proposing a complete merging of the state of Maine’s community college and public university systems.
In an op-ed for the Sun Journal on Oct. 20, Cutler called for educational reform across the board. This call included a demand for a comprehensive plan for education in the state from preschool through graduate studies. His plan included the idea of merging Maine’s community colleges and public universities. It also called for the elimination of tuition costs for higher education by replacing tuition with the payment of a fixed percentage of graduates’ incomes in exchange for their living and working in the state of Maine for 20 years after graduation.
Cutler’s plan, which he said is detailed more comprehensively in his self-published book, A State of Opportunity, sprung from a speech he made in 2008 as a part of the ‘Policy Soundings’ lecture series. He’d been asked to speak about his work in China, and ended up discussing whether or not Maine’s educational system is competitive in the global market. According to Cutler, it is not–and since then, he said to the Free Press, the problem of Maine’s educational system has been on his mind.
“None of this is new, it’s just that we haven’t done anything about it,” Cutler said.
According to USM political science professor Ron Schmidt, the problem with Cutler’s proposal is not this desire for international academic competitiveness. “That’s a fair goal,” said Schmidt, when discussing the link between Cutler’s goal and the proposal in his op-ed. “I have no idea how he gets from one to the other.”
One of the points Schmidt objected to was to Cutler’s notion of “Pay it Forward, Pay it Back,” which would waive student payment for tuition while they are in school on the condition that they stay in the state and pay a percentage of their income back to the school for 20 years after graduation. Schmidt described this as creating, “what is essentially an indentured servitude class.”
The section of Cutler’s op-ed to which Schmidt refers states that “[the plan] would allow Maine high school graduates to attend our public colleges and universities tuition-free on the condition that they live and work in Maine and pay the fund back with a minimal percentage of their own incomes over 20 years or so.” Cutler responded to Schmidt’s comments later in a statement to the Free Press. Despite the op-ed’s language, Cutler’s plan would not necessarily keep students involved in the program from leaving the state.
“There’s no way that we could force graduates to stay in Maine, even if we wanted to,” Cutler said. “My intention has been that the legislature would consider a couple of alternatives: (a) a condition that students live and work in Maine for some number of years (say, three to six) following graduation, and then, they could leave if they wanted to, but the percentage-of-income repayment requirement would continue until it is satisfied; or, (b) they could leave right after graduation, but they would have to convert the debt from a ‘Pay It Forward, Pay It Back’ program to a conventional student loan.”
When asked whether there was precedent for his proposals, Cutler cited the state of Oregon’s proposed “Pay It Forward” plan that may or may not be implemented in 2015. “Pay It Forward” is indeed similar to Cutler’s proposal, except that it does not require students to remain in the state to participate.
The other significant change Cutler would make to Maine’s higher education system would be the merging of the public university and community college systems. This change is one that he feels would be particularly financially and practically sound.
“We have two separate systems with two separate superstructures,” Cutler said. “One of the consequences of that is that we don’t have a clearly defined path.” By combining the two systems, he would hope to prevent administrative redundancies and create a single, clear path through all of the levels the Maine public education system has to offer.
Schmidt pointed out that the mission statements of the two systems are different, with the community college system placing a heavier emphasis on job placement while the university system is intended to be a place for research and exploration, as well as the building of job skills.
Cutler said that his plans for education reform are key to his campaign for governor. Schmidt was more skeptical. “If for some reason this strikes a chord with people, it could help him, but I doubt it,” Schmidt said, adding, “it’s entirely possible that it will slip under the radar altogether.”
President Kalikow, Provost Stevenson and University of Maine Chancellor James Page declined to comment on Cutler’s proposal for higher education.
Cutler’s speech was in 2009, not in 2008, in which he was asked to speak about Maine’s place in a changing America and world.