The Star-Herald

Helping rural students succeed

Helping students achieve their education and career goals has long been a priority for me. I recently introduced two bipartisan bills aimed at helping students — especially first-generation college students and those from rural communities — pursue higher education, complete their degrees or earn their credentials, and have satisfying work lives.

 The first bill is the Educational Opportunity and Success Act.  It would extend and strengthen the federal TRIO programs, which I have long championed. Congress created the TRIO programs because it recognized that low-income, first-generation college students often face significant obstacles to accessing and completing higher education. My bill would increase grant sizes, make it easier for administrators to reach students who would benefit, and update the way that the programs are evaluated.

In addition, this legislation would institute common-sense guidelines at the Department of Education for processing TRIO grant applications, helping to make sure federal funds get out the door and to the programs and students they are meant to serve.  The bill would prevent a repeat of an incident in 2017 when the Department initially rejected dozens of Upward Bound applications based on arbitrary, non-substantive formatting criteria such as line spacing or font size irregularities.  

One of these applications was from the University of Maine at Presque Isle, which failed to use double spacing in graphics on just two of the application’s 65 pages.  The department’s bureaucratic decision would have denied 960 disadvantaged Maine high school students the chance of fulfilling their academic potential. After many months of advocacy, my Senate colleagues and I were able to reverse this ill-conceived policy.

I’ve met so many successful Maine TRIO students. One of them is Jason Judd, a first-generation college graduate who grew up in the very small community of Athens, Maine.  With the support of Upward Bound, he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine at Farmington, his master’s degree from the University of Southern Maine, and his doctorate from Northeastern University. Today, Jason is the Executive Director of Educate Maine, where he works to improve education in our state.

 The second bill I introduced is the Success for Rural Students and Communities Act, which would help students living in rural areas achieve their higher education goals and connect them with economic opportunities in their communities.

 Two out of three Maine schools are located in rural communities, and more than half of Maine’s students attend these schools.  While 90 percent of Maine’s students graduate from high school, only 62 percent enroll in some kind of higher education right away.  This trend is not unique to Maine.

Specifically, the Success for Rural Students and Communities Act would establish demonstration grants to encourage rural community stakeholders — such as local school districts, colleges and universities, regional economic development entities, and community organizations — to partner together to help students attend and complete college or other postsecondary education and access jobs available where they live. 

 In Northern Maine, the Aroostook Aspirations Initiative is using this model successfully to help students achieve academic and career goals. The Initiative collaborates with local businesses and with colleges and universities to offer seminars that guide students throughout their education. Students can team up with employers in the area through internships that give them the experience and the careers they wish to pursue.

Last year, I met with a student from Aroostook County named Katelyn Amaro, who came to Washington to talk about her career goals.  Katelyn hopes to pursue a career in medicine. In 2019, Katelyn participated in the Emerging Rural Leaders program at the University of Chicago, which provides opportunities for rural high school students to enroll in college courses over the summer months. That program has helped put her on the path to becoming a physician. The Success for Rural Students and Communities Act would support dynamic programs such as the Emerging Rural Leaders program and the Aroostook Aspirations Initiative. It would encourage other communities to innovate in similar ways.

 Together, the Educational Opportunity and Success Act and the Success for Rural Students and Communities Act would provide critical supports for students across the country in achieving their college and career aspirations.

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