Relief may be just around the corner for students graduating from Maine colleges and universities with large educational debts.

In January 2008, the State of Maine will launch Opportunity Maine, a program that provides debt-relief incentives for students who graduate from Maine colleges and stay in state to work afterward.

Opportunity Maine is the brainchild of students and citizens who wanted to alleviate the mounting debt burden of college graduates. The coalition collected enough signatures to get the initiative to the floor of the State House where it received widespread bipartisan support. The bill was signed into law in July by Governor John Baldacci.

Recently, the Bowdoin Democratic Left sponsored a panel to raise awareness about the program on campus. The panel brought together Alec Maybarduk, the field director of Opportunity Maine and the League of Young Voters, Bowdoin alumnus David Duhalde '06 from the Young Democratic Socialists, and Rebecca Thompson, the legislative director for the United States Student, who answered students' questions about Opportunity Maine and discussed the issue of increasing college debts.

According to Maybarduk, who was instrumental in getting the Opportunity Maine campaign off the ground, the initiative must now get information about the program out to college students across Maine. Maybarduk said that while the program has received widespread coverage in state and local newspapers, many college students may still be unaware of Opportunity Maine.

"Residential students between 18 and 24 living on a college campus read much more their campus press than local newspapers," Maybarduk said. "Because there are gaps in the state of Maine, we are working with 25 college campuses to help promote the program on the campus."

For Maybarduk, Opportunity Maine should serve as encouragement for students concerned about increasing tuition rates and the burden of paying off loans after graduation.

"This program lets students know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. They know that if they can just get their degree, then the state of Maine will help them pay off their loans," Maybarduk said.

The panelists also discussed the higher education debt crisis more broadly and what steps the federal government could take to alleviate the debt burden. Thompson described student debt in the context of three nationwide issues that threaten to make a "perfect storm" for the student-debt problem.

"Tuition and fees are skyrocketing, states and the federal government are divesting [from] higher education funding, and private student loan lenders are marketing even more aggressively than they have in the past, because they have many more ways to target student borrowers than they did a couple of years ago," she said.

Duhalde placed the onus on the federal government and suggested that it should increase the number of grants available to students and make it easier to forgive student loans.

"The question is not whether government should interfere more with student debt, but changing how it does get involved and making it more pro-student, less pro-corporate," he said.

Thompson cited the changes that have occurred in higher education funding since the 1965 Higher Education Act. Thompson said that in the years since the legislation was passed, the amount of funding allocated toward higher education has decreased.

"There are a number of higher education programs targeted for elimination every year in the president's budget," she said.

While Opportunity Maine represents only one initiative in one state, the program's leaders said the initiative's success demonstrates the potential of grassroots efforts to make a difference.

Talking about the campaign, Maybarduk remarked on the widespread commitment and hard work of volunteers from a variety of backgrounds across the state.

From November 2006 to February 2007, the initiative's organizers worked with volunteers to collect the required number of signatures to introduce the bill to the Maine State Legislature.

"Students, members of unions in the state and business leaders collected signatures on the street corner in the pouring snow," Maybarduk said. "Its incredible to see a 40-year-old single mother going to her full-time job and still find time in the evening to go out into the middle of the streets in Portland to collect their signatures."

According to Maybarduk, the response from politicians in Augusta was equally rewarding.

While Maybarduk admitted that the program would cost the state money to fund, he said that it eventually would be profitable for Maine.

"There is no doubt that this is an expensive program," Maybarduk admitted. "But after the 10th year, the program actually pays for itself. Eventually, the state will be making money off this program. In 10 years, the program costs about $50 million. But, after that, the numbers project that the state will be making an additional $30 million a year."

Opportunity Maine has brought the state to the forefront of nation-wide discussions on alleviating student debt.

In an e-mail to Orient, Duhalde wrote that the potential of Opportunity Maine to not only reduce student debt, but to improve the state's economic situation makes Maine a very important part of this national conversation on reducing student debt.

"What makes the state unique is the Opportunity Maine program which could potentially change the economic and education situation in Maine for the better," Duhalde said. "That is why people are focused on Maine when looking at student debt."