One Student Does the Incredible: Gets Law Passed for State to Pay Off College Debts

When nonvoters are asked why they don't participate in politics, the most common answer they give is that they don't think they can have any impact. The system's gamed, they say, broken, and lawmakers are only concerned about the interests of their cronies.

Thankfully, Andrew Bossie, a young grass-roots organizer, never came to believe that ordinary people are powerless. In 2005, Bossie, then a student at the University of Southern Maine, looked around and noticed that a generation of young people was having real problems affording the kind of education that most people see as vital to having a shot at the American dream. "The skyrocketing costs of tuition, books and living expenses was taking its toll not only on me, but also on my siblings, friends and peers," Bossie wrote in an e-mail exchange. "It was not uncommon to see a college dorm vacated mid-semester because a tuition bill couldn't be paid, or to find a seat once occupied by an eager student empty, because they simply could not afford to continue."

Nobody told Andrew Bossie that he couldn't do anything about the bleak post-graduation prospects so many of his fellow students faced, so he decided he would. "I had a crazy, hare-brained idea," Bossie told me in a phone interview. "And I started to have conversations with people who were politically active, and when I did that I saw that it generated a lot of excitement."

The idea was fairly simple: help students pay off their debts if they stay in Maine. Last week, two years later, Bossie's work, along with those of other activists and groups, including the League of Independent Voters, bore fruit when Maine legislators passed the Opportunity Maine Initiative. The measure will give tax credits to help Maine residents pay off their student debt as long as they stay in the state. "Nontraditional" students returning to get their degrees would also be eligible for the credits, as would employers who pay off their workers' student loans as a benefit.

After a two-year campaign, the measure had been on its way to voters in the form of a statewide referendum this November when Maine's legislature stepped in and passed the bill by wide margins -- 142-0 in the State House and 27-8 in the Senate.

It's a small example of good governance in an era when an increasing number of Americans have learned the hard way how rare that is -- it's an example of legislating in the public interest; the antithesis of deals cut in Congress during the dark of night or the federal efforts to clean up after hurricane Katrina.

Young Bossie had been involved in student politics and had gotten a taste of grass-roots organizing when he worked on a campaign to beat back a referendum that would have repealed a state law outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual preference. "I realized, as we worked against a referendum process that would have allowed businesses to fire employees just for being gay -- something I considered very negative -- that it would be just as easy to use the referendum process to do something positive."

Soon, Bossie found himself heading up a coalition of activists called Opportunity Maine. "The greatest challenge," Bossie wrote last week, "was that the group that formed to spearhead this issue was made up almost entirely of novices, with little to no campaign experience, and, for the most part, young people -- we were building the plane and flying it at the same time ... None of us had really ever done anything like this, especially on this level before."

The problem they set out to address is one faced by communities all across America. Maine's once-thriving economy has taken hard hits as towns that relied on textiles, small manufactures and mills became hollowed out by the vaunted New Economy and its relentless pursuit of cheaper labor and ever-greater efficiencies.

With a shrinking number of decent-paying jobs, Maine's college graduates faced daunting prospects. Writing in the Bangor Daily News, Rob Brown, Opportunity Maine's Campaign Director, laid out the problem like this:

A generation ago, student debt was minimal or nonexistent. Today, the average graduate in Maine is starting off, or starting again, with $25,000 in debt, a mortgage on their future that has perverse effects on life and career choices. Rising education costs have dramatically outpaced inflation and, with mounting student debt and continued cuts in federal support, have effectively become a regressive tax for many.
Maine's problems are cyclical: Young graduates have to leave the state in order to find jobs that offer salaries that will allow them to pay off their debts, and, in turn, firms aren't beating down the doors to create new jobs in Maine because it's hard to find educated workers. According to a report by the Brookings Institution, roughly half of Maine's recent college graduates leave the state to find work. According to Brown, the state has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country, but its workers are a third less likely to have post-secondary degrees than workers in the rest of New England. John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System told the New York Times that his office had identified more than 4,000 recent jobs that had gone unfilled or were taken by out-of-state recruits because Maine didn't have enough workers with the required skills.

In stepped Bossie and the coalition he'd helped put together. "The biggest challenge that I personally faced," he told me, "was the hours of standing out in the cold asking for signatures in December and January. Remember, we had to collect more than 70,000 of them in the middle of winter on the streets of Maine to ensure that we would be successful. I could barely hold a pen and clipboard."

I asked Bossie where he got the nerve to think he could pull off something like this, and he paused before answering. "I feel like everyone complains about these systems we have," he said, "but I try to reform them instead. I own them, as a citizen -- they're my systems in the end."

This is a small story about a group of young people in one small state who are trying to sustain good local jobs in a rudderless global economy. It's also a story of grass-roots activism and good governance; of ordinary citizens -- not big-time campaign donors -- who believed that it was possible to address the kinds of problems that causes most career politicians to throw up their hands and say it's impossible for government to smooth the edges of the New Economy.

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