Closing the aspirations gap

Gov. Paul LePage and Democrats in the Legislature have both placed a high priority on addressing what’s come to be known as the skills gap in Maine’s workforce.

There are jobs available, but a lot of folks who need work don’t have the right mix of experience and education to get them.

The Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Workforce and Economic Future has put together a list of pragmatic policy changes that could help to address the gap by making college more accessible and affordable and by breaking down barriers to higher education.

As the Bangor Daily News reported last week, the committee’s recommendation include: making it easier to transfer credits from Maine’s community colleges to the university system, improving access to high-skills training in rural Maine, reducing wait lists for community college programs and improving the Maine Apprenticeship Program.

In particular, the legislation is targeting adults with some college but who haven’t received a degree.

“We know that when you earn a higher degree, your income level goes up, and you become a more valuable employee,” said Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, who is co-chair of the committee.

The committee members, who have been working with the governor’s office on ideas, deserve credit for taking on a vexing problem.

But in addition to a skills gap, Maine also has an aspirations gap.

On Sunday, The New York Times wrote about a new report by the National Bureau of Economic Research that found the vast majority of very high-achieving students who are low-income do not apply to the country’s best colleges and university even though such schools would often cost less due to the financial aid that is available.

For too many families, the idea of going to college is distant or seems unachievable. Or worse, they view college as a waste of time and money.

For too many students, even those with great grades, extracurricular activities and top test scores, attending the best colleges doesn’t seem possible.

Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Duke, even schools close to home like Bates, Bowdoin or Colby – they might as well be in Oz.

Enter Bob Stuart.

Last week, my daughter came home from school talking about college and careers.

Most nights, I feel like an FBI interrogator just trying to get basic information.

The day was “good.” School was “good.” Math was “good.” English was “good.” Art was “good.”

It feels like she took a class in evasive answers and one-syllable words.

But last week it was different. My third grader – thankfully many years still removed from college – was excited about college and careers. She was even talking about writing a college essay.

Why? Because “Bob” had come to her school.

Stuart is the executive director of a nonprofit called Maine College Circle, which he founded in 1992. Each year, Stuart visits between 50 and 60 schools around Maine and talks to third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students about college.

Stuart says you have to deliver the message when they’re young.

“Somewhere in there is the critical time. If we don’t reach the kids then and engage them, we can miss them,” Stuart says.

Stuart spent 25 years as a high school guidance counselor, and he says by the time students reach 12th grade, some of them have already decided that college isn’t an option.

He talks to them about careers and about the schools that have the best reputations in those areas. And he challenges the kids to write a college essay and compete for a $100 scholarship.

But what Stuart is really doing is opening up the world of possibilities. He’s working to close that aspirations gap.

“It’s about information, about knowing what’s possible,” Stuart said. “I talk to the kids about effort and about earning these scholarships.”

Stuart focuses his efforts on schools with a high number of families with low-incomes and on rural areas.

“Some of these kids can’t see a future,” he said. “I see these kids and I think we should really try to help.”

About 46 percent of all K-12 students in Maine qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to the Maine Department of Education. At the school my kids attend, it’s 55 percent. In Washington County, it’s 60 percent.

With the help of many individuals and a number of good Maine companies, Maine College Circle awards about 120 scholarships a year.

The winners also get invited for a campus visit. In years past, they’ve gone to Bowdoin, Bates and Colby. This year they will visit Saint Joseph’s and Thomas colleges.

The kids who make the trip see more than a college. They can catch a glimpse of a new future, full of possibilities and opportunities that they might not dare to have imagined before.

We should make higher education – and lifelong learning – open to as many people as possible. The skills gap is just the manifestation of our aspiration gap, just several years removed.

The notion that college isn’t for everyone is wrong.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.