Down East 2013 ©
Yes, You Can Afford It
Students who want to attend a Maine college might be surprised at all the financial aid that's available.
Jean Warren at the Maine Community Foundation knows about loose money, cash that's just sitting there waiting for a college-bound student to claim it. Rob Constantine at Unity College wants to give two thousand dollars away to any Maine student who's willing to do what it takes to claim it. Sharon Oliver at the University of Maine has $7,200 for every graduating high school senior who qualifies.
All of that money and much more are available through various grants and scholarships for Maine high-school students who want to go on to college. And it's needed. When it comes to paying for college, it's scary out there. College costs have risen at twice the rate of inflation in Maine and across the nation. A year at one of the state's Little Ivy League schools - Bowdoin, Bates, and Colby - can cost $46,000. Even the University of Maine figures that an in-state student needs about $19,000 for tuition, room and board, books, and fees.
Perhaps it's no mystery why Maine, with one of the lowest per capita incomes and one of the highest high-school graduation rates in the country, sees barely half its high-schoolers go on to college - and less than that finish with a degree. According to the Mitchell Institute, 62 percent of Maine's high school graduates enrolled in college in 2001. By 2006 the rate had dropped to 57 percent.
The problem, according to those involved in college scholarships, is the clash of high aspirations and low assumptions. "So many Maine kids want to go to college, but they and their parents assume they can't afford it," says Constantine, Unity's vice president for college advancement. "We know students aren't coming here, or even applying, for financial reasons."
Unity College recently announced a plan to give all of its students from Maine two-thousand-dollar scholarships. Constantine says the move was inspired by the late philanthropist Harold Alfond, whose foundation is financing a program that establishes a five-hundred-dollar college fund for every child born in Maine [see page 23]. He says forty-four current students qualify for the program.
Other schools are also paying special attention to Maine students. Colby College in Waterville recently announced that, thanks largely to support from Portland real-estate developer and alumnus Joe Boulos, it is replacing all student loans for Maine residents with outright grants. "There's been a concern for a while that the number of Maine students hasn't been as robust as it should be," explains Stephen Collins, the school's director of communications. "Maine's been supporting us for more than a hundred and fifty years. There's a sense of obligation that Colby feels for the people of Maine."
At the University of Maine, outstanding students from every high school in Maine can qualify for $7,200 Top Scholar awards, enough to cover full-time tuition for an entire year. The program uses class rank and SAT scores to determine recipients, Oliver says. Plus the school has a wide variety of specialty scholarships in areas ranging from forestry and chemical engineering to dance and theater.
In truth, there is a wide range of funding available to Maine high-schoolers who want to go on to college.
The trick is finding the money and then applying for it.
"The first place to go is your high-school guidance office," advises Warren, who oversees more than three hundred scholarship funds at the Maine Community Foundation. "Students need to find out what's available and explain what their interests are."
Guidance offices are the door to a huge number of local scholarship funds, far more than just the ones in Warren's portfolio. In Bath, for example, the Davenport Trust is well known for its scholarships to graduates of the local Morse High School. But almost unknown are smaller funds like the Muriel L. McCaffey Education Trust, which is managed by Bath Savings Trust Company and makes annual awards to local students through the high school. It is just one of several scholarship funds the bank oversees.
"Essentially, we contact the school with the amounts available each year, and the school chooses the recipients," explains Eve Wing, a trust officer. She emphasizes that the bank itself is not involved in the selection process and doesn't handle applications. "It's the trustee's responsibility to make sure the wishes of the trust's donor are carried out," she explains. "Every trust is different. I've seen some pretty strict criteria."
The occasionally obscure requirements of some scholarships offer opportunities for those willing to search for them. The Genevieve C. Geeve Scholarship Fund, for example, offers five hundred dollars to graduating Maine high-school seniors who will "major in equestrian science and/or related studies: performance, research, or veterinary medicine," according to the description on the Finance Authority of Maine (FAME) Web site. The Joseph W. Mayo Scholarship offers five hundred to two thousand dollars to Maine residents who have "a child, parent, step-parent, grandparent, domestic partner, or spouse diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease)."
Both the FAME and Maine Community Foundation Web sites offer links to hundreds of small scholarships, some limited to specialty groups such as children of postal workers and others open to anyone in the state, for amounts ranging from $250 to many thousands. "With the advent of the Web, it's become much easier to search for scholarships that might have slipped past unnoticed in previous years," says Warren. "Also, students should talk to older friends who are already in college, as well as local banks, the Rotary club, Daughters of the American Revolution, and other service and fraternal organizations. It's surprising what's out there if you're willing to look."
It's also surprising that some of the money is never used. "It's one of the most discouraging parts of this job," says Warren.
"Scholarships go begging because kids don't take the time to fill out the applications."
Warren says some students tell her that the amounts aren't worth their while. "I ask them how long it would take to earn five hundred or a thousand or two thousand dollars at their summer job?" she responds. "If you spend four or five hours finding and filling out the application for a scholarship that's going to pay you a thousand dollars a year for the next four years, that's a pretty good hourly rate in my book."
Last year the foundation awarded almost $1.8 million in scholarship money, Warren says. "We really do have resources to help students," she comments.
The state of Maine itself also offers direct grants to college students through FAME, a state institution better known for helping businesses than high-school seniors. "This year we helped about thirteen thousand students," notes Beth Bordowitz, FAME's interim CEO. "The average grant was $1,200." Students must go to school in Maine or in a state with a reciprocity agreement with Maine.
Bordowitz and Martha Johnston, her scholarship director, would like FAME to be every college senior's first phone call after that initial visit to the guidance office, but says that FAME's business-oriented reputation can get in the way. "We work with the guidance community all over the state," Johnston explains. "We set up meetings around the state to explain all the programs we administer and how to apply for financial aid. We attend financial aid nights at local high schools. And we still run into people who say they've never heard of FAME."
For families who want to get an early start on saving for college, FAME also administers the NextGen program, an investment account with tax-deferred or tax-exempt earnings. The Alfond Foundation's award program for Maine newborns is being set up through the NextGen system.
Colby College's Stephen Collins sometimes wishes news stories wouldn't always point out how expensive it is to attend his school. He suspects that's one reason the number of Maine students at the school has dropped from 12 percent of the student body to 10 percent in recent years. Certainly it affected the school's decision to eliminate student loans in favor of outright grants for Maine students.
The college knows it's in the upper ranks of pricey schools, but Collins says Colby has made a commitment to ensure that any student who is accepted receives the financial aid necessary to attend. "We work to be as needs blind as possible," he says, and that especially applies to Maine students. Besides the grant program, he points out that Colby does not charge Mainers an application fee, and the financial aid office administers literally dozens of scholarship funds dedicated solely to helping Maine students.
"We've seen tremendous success among the Maine students enrolled here," he says. "They have a very good work ethic; they come here well prepared."
Looking at the cost of an education at Colby or its companion schools can be the definition of sticker shock for most Maine families, and each year there are more news stories about increases in tuition and fees. "It's been frustrating to me that the media stories about increasing tuition here usually don't include the fact that financial aid is increasing, too," Collins says. The average financial aid package at Colby today is more than thirty thousand dollars a year, he says.
"We've always been eager to tell Maine students not to write off Colby because of sticker shock," Collins says. That same advice applies to any of Maine's private colleges. "If you talk to any college like Colby they'll tell you it's increasingly hard to enroll Maine kids," Collins notes.
"The costs of higher education are getting crazy," agrees Constantine, of Unity College, where 550 students pay $26,900 a year. "Even as we struggle to meet our budgets, we're afraid that college is reaching a point where it's not affordable for many people. It's almost impossible for a middle-income or low-income student to go to a private college without substantial financial aid. We draw mostly from those income brackets, and the amount of unmet need increases each year."
Constantine says that, within private college ranks, there is a growing debate over the fear that a time is approaching when a private-school education may once again be the province only of the wealthy, as it was before World War II. "Across education, if you look in the [professional] journals and magazines, a lot of people are starting to question how we can make private colleges more affordable," he says.
"We used to be the safety school," UMaine's Oliver says. "No more. The shift we're seeing is that now we're right in there competing with other schools. Our reputation in the sciences has always been strong and our reputation in the arts is getting even better. And there are the cost issues. Financial aid is becoming more important than ever, and that means students, their families, and the schools have to work harder to find it."
"There is money out there," Warren says. "It's as simple as that."
Here's a paradox: many of Maine's best private schools also happen to be public.
Lee Academy should have closed decades ago. Located on Route 9 halfway between Lincoln and nowhere, in a town with an eye-blink village and a population of barely eight hundred, the private secondary school should by rights be nothing but a collection of mouldering foundations in an old field, a reminder of a Maine long gone.
Instead, Lee Academy is thriving. So are Foxcroft Academy and Lincoln Academy and Washington Academy. All of them are members of a unique class of secondary schools in Maine - privately run academies that serve as both local high schools for their surrounding communities and private preparatory schools, often with a significant population of boarding students from all over the United States and the world.
"We date back to a time when there were no public secondary schools in Maine," explains Jay Brennan, associate headmaster at Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft and the unofficial historian of Maine's independent schools. Foxcroft was founded in 1823 to provide a college preparatory education for teenagers from across northern Maine at a time when public education generally ended in the eighth grade.
"Transportation was so bad in those days that most academies had dormitories," Brennan says. "Later on, as roads improved, many towns decided to keep sending their children to the local private schools rather than build high schools of their own."
Precise numbers vary, but only twenty so-called town academies exist in New England, and ten of them are in Maine, according to Jay Pinkerton, head of school at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle. Generally speaking, the schools are set up as nonprofit organizations with independent boards of trustees, similar to the structure of private colleges. Their tuition for local students is set by the state Department of Education - currently $7,620 - while boarding students pay thirty thousand dollars and more.
Lincoln Academy is one of the few town academies that do not take boarding students. For others, it's a growth business. Washington Academy began accepting boarding students again in 2001 after several decades of serving only local teenagers. Foxcroft Academy is building a new $7-million dormitory after several years of leasing residential space in the community, while Lee Academy has expanded its dorm space to accommodate more students.
"Originally [the academies] were chartered by the state - and often funded with grants of public land - to prepare students for college," explains Pinkerton. (Such "academy grants" can still be found in township names on maps of the North Woods.) Newcastle's Lincoln Academy, for example, was founded in 1801 specifically for the purpose of readying young scholars to enter Bowdoin College in nearby Brunswick.
Town academies continue today due to Maine's long tradition of allowing school choice in towns that do not have their own high schools or aren't part of school administrative districts. Simply put, students and their parents can choose to attend any high school that will accept them, at a tuition rate set by the state and paid by the town. Washington Academy, in East Machias, has contracts with four surrounding towns that guarantee places for their students, plus it draws school-choice students from more than a dozen other communities.
The academies are generally non-selective, meaning that local students do not have to meet certain academic requirements to attend. "Most town academies are comprehensive schools," explains Judson McBrine, headmaster at Washington Academy. "Eighteen percent of our students are special-needs kids."
McBrine and other academy leaders in Maine emphasize that students attend by choice, a fact that can have a telling impact on discipline issues - because the schools can choose not to keep them. "We're a little less tied up in local politics," he explains. "If a student is a problem, I decide if he or she stays. Then it's up to the town school board to decide if they're willing to send the student elsewhere."
McBrine acknowledges that "Washington County has its challenges," but he also insists that the school does not have the discipline problems an outsider might expect. "Yes, we're a lot stricter," he explains. "But you know something? The kids seem to welcome it. They know where the boundaries are, they expect it, and they like it."
About 75 percent of Washington Academy's graduates go on to post-secondary education, but McBrine emphasizes that the school also offers a range of vocational programs not commonly found in a prep school curriculum. "We have a diesel engine mechanics program, boatbuilding courses, and a culinary arts program, for example," he notes. He quips that some of his students "are making more money right out of school than the headmaster makes."
The new emphasis on boarding students is traced in many cases to the declining number of school-age youngsters in Maine.
"We were down to 275 students in the late 1990s," McBrine recalls. "The school-age population in Washington County has dropped by 40 percent in the last fifteen years, and it's going to drop another 20 percent in the next fifteen years." Today the school has 370 students, which makes it one of the largest town academies in the state. Seventy-five of the kids are boarding students who live in school dormitories.
Foxcroft Academy's new dormitory will house 48 students, an increase over the 44 boarding students now attending. Lee Academy has 270 students, with 68 boarding students. Head of School Bruce Lindberg plans to increase that to 85 over the next couple of years.
Lee Academy was incorporated in 1845 as both a local high school and a regional "normal school," training teachers to serve in rural Maine's one-room schoolhouses. "Twenty years later we became a straight high school, and we've had a boarding component pretty much ever since," Lindberg explains. After the original school consolidation law, the Sinclair Act, was passed in 1957, the academy became the high school for students from Maine's offshore island communities - odd considering Lee's location in upper Penobscot County. "At Alumni Day celebrations, we still have people attend who are sixty-five years old and came here from the Cranberry Islands and Long Island and other places," Lindberg notes. For a time the school also served teenagers from Maine's Indian reservations.
Six years ago Lee Academy opened three new dorms and began marketing itself outside Maine - and outside the United States. "We have students from twelve states and thirteen countries now," Lindberg says.
Asian countries are by far the largest market for Maine's town academies, although Russia, Egypt, Brazil, Spain, Australia, and other nations are also well represented. Bermuda, for some reason, sends a disproportionate share of students to Maine academies. "We have more kids from Bermuda in Maine than anywhere else outside Bermuda," says McBrine, whose Washington Academy counts twelve Bermudans among its students.
"Our strongest country is Korea," says Lindberg, "followed by mainland China, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam." While many people would think that Lee's intensely rural, even isolated, location would send students from heavily urbanized Asia running for the next plane home, Lindberg says those are exactly the qualities students and their parents are seeking.
"The big thing that people like about Lee Academy is its rural location," he insists. "Safety is a major issue, especially with international students' families, because their image of the United States is largely determined by movies. And the students like the fact that this allows them to really focus on academics. Our attrition rate is practically nil."
Students find their way to Maine's academies through the Internet - "I just created a Web site in China," notes Foxcroft's Brennan - and educational consultants hired by families to find and recommend American schools for their children. "I just got back from a conference in Miami where I met with more than a hundred educational placement agencies," says Lindberg. Word of mouth and family recommendations also play roles.
Every school official agrees that they can't come close to meeting the demand from the international market. "There's a tremendous pool of candidates in Asia who want to study in America," says Brennan. "If we had the space for three hundred students from China, we could fill it tomorrow."
It's an odd mix, students from rural Maine and industrialists' children from Seoul and Hong Kong and Zagreb. "Town academies are places where a student from next door can be learning with someone from Thailand," muses Brennan.
"It reinforces for our students that we now live in an international world," adds Lindberg. "You walk into a calculus class, and the kid from Wytopitlock is solving a problem with the kid from China. You sit in an international relations class talking about the Middle East, and you have a Muslim from Israel saying, `Hey, I can tell you about that. I live it every day.' This is rural America with ten or twelve different languages in the hallway. You can't buy that kind of education for a Maine kid."
The exposure to different cultures also has another effect. "Asian students typically go to school or are studying from seven in the morning until ten at night," Brennan explains. "They bring a work ethic to their education that raises the bar for American students."
"The boarding students increase the culture of seriousness among our students," adds Washington Academy's McBrine. "Having them here challenging our local kids is increasing our test scores. It shows our local kids that they have options beyond UMaine-Machias and the local community college."
"In last year's senior class, every single student, local and foreign, was accepted to a college or university," adds Lindberg. "That doesn't happen in a rural Maine school."
A magnet school in Limestone is exerting a strong pull.
A recent ranking of public high schools in America by U.S. News & World Report catapulted the town of Limestone and its public residential magnet school, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, into national prominence. Placing thirty-fifth in the nation in a survey that analyzed close to 19,000 public schools, Limestone's charter school proved on a national scale what Mainers have long known: Maine's (and one of New England's) only public school designed specifically for high-achieving high-school students is among the best in the country.
Based on a combination of performance on state tests and the level of college preparedness the school provided to the students, the magazine awarded schools gold, silver, and bronze medals. The Maine School of Science and Mathematics garnered a gold medal, while the public schools of Bangor, Falmouth, Greely, and Yarmouth were awarded silver prizes. Eight additional Maine schools earned bronzes. Only one other New England school, Boston Latin, was ranked ahead of the Limestone school, in nineteenth place.
Chartered in 1995 by the Maine legislature, the campus is nestled next to Canada in Aroostook County, three hundred and fifty miles northeast of the Maine-New Hampshire border. In that unlikely location, the prestigious ranking by U.S. News & World Report proves that the school succeeds in its mission to "challenge students to achieve their aspirations by fostering intellectual growth through a rigorous curriculum in advanced mathematics, science, and humanities." What's the price tag on this top-notch education? It costs $6,400 for a Maine student to attend in the 2007-2008 school year, a sum that is often covered by individual towns, and $21,000 for out of staters - nearly half of the going rate of most New England private schools.
Far more important than the magazine's ranking, of course, is the fact that 99 percent of Maine School of Science and Mathematics students, young people who represent some eighty-one communities across Maine, pursue four-year colleges and universities. That's acing the most important exam of all.
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