Alfond spearheads Maine student debt solution

The efforts of Colby and the Alfond Foundation to revive Waterville extended their boundaries on Tuesday, with the foundation announcing it would pay off some or all of the college loans of anyone who moves to Maine or stays in Maine after graduation to work in the field of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

In a lunchtime ceremony downtown hosted by Colby and CGI, the Montreal-based technology company set to open a large satellite office in Waterville, Greg Powell, the executive director of the Alfond Foundation and a Waterville native, told a crowd of approximately 100 about two large challenges currently facing the state of Maine: high student debt and meeting the state’s workforce needs.

“Student loans can be a very good investment if the borrowed amount is linked to future earning capacity, if the higher education experience builds that capacity into its students, and if the economy cooperates and [makes those jobs available for those students],” Powell stated during the luncheon, “but in the past 10 years we have been tested big-time. For too many young people of this generation, student debt has not been a good investment.”

Maine, a state of 1.3 million people, has $4.8 billion dollars in outstanding student debt, with the average debt at approximately $30,000; that’s the seventh-highest average student debt burden in the country.

Along with high average student debts, Maine is also facing a shortage in its available workforce. Powell explained that the primary cause of this particular issue is that “the demographics are not on [Maine’s] side, birthrates are either declining or static [in parts of] the state, and Maine also has the oldest population in the country.” Powell went on to say, for Maine businesses to prosper, “it is imperative that [these businesses] can recruit and keep the high [level of talent] that they need to expand.”

Powell went on to discuss the increasing market of STEM related jobs, the market that the proposed program will directly address. “Experts predict that in the coming years 1 in 7 new jobs will be STEM related,” Powell said, “and the averages wages [of these jobs] will be 57% higher than other wages in Maine.”

The program, called Alfond Leaders, will be administered by the Finance Authority of Maine (FAME). The Harold Alfond Foundation has committed $5.5 million to jumpstart the project, which will translate to up to $60,000 per recipient. The grants will be awarded based on an application process, which went live Tuesday on its website www.alfondleaders.org.

“We are thrilled that we have been in partnership with the Harold Alfond Foundation to make this work,” President of Colby David A. Greene said, “there is no better partner in the world than the Alfond Foundation, they are smart, generous, analytical, and tough. They want to do the right thing for Maine.”

Governor Paul LePage reiterated Greene’s remarks in a prerecorded video shown at the event, stating, “As former mayor of Waterville, it is great to see the first step. … Colby’s connection to the community is stronger today than it has ever been.”

That connection was showcased by the fact that the Alfond Foundation elected not only to make the announcement in Waterville but also by the selection of the site where it was made: 173 Main Street, the 1903 building purchased by Colby in 2015 to house CGI’s Waterville operation. When the building is fully renovated, CGI’s 200-person workforce will take over the upper floors, with various local and national retailers expected to occupy space on the street level. The building is currently the only structure the College has begun work on as part of its downtown revitalization efforts. A dorm housing 200 Colby students is scheduled to be built across the street from 173 Main, and 42-room boutique hotel is planned to occupy the space at the other end of the commercial strip that once housed Levine’s clothing store.

President Greene noted the historical significance of 173 Main Street in remarks that opened the ceremony.
“As we sit here today,” said Greene, “in the shadow of the mills that once supported this city for decades and decades, we now sit in the building that was at the turn of the century a great bank building…and now will be a high-tech center providing hundreds of new jobs to people in Waterville and in the surrounding areas.”