Empowering young Maine students to build a brighter future . . . for themselves and for their communities.

Education, Aspirations, and the 3 Maines
A conversation with Bob Stuart, Director, Maine College Circle

You spend a lot of time talking with elementary school students about college and career aspirations. Why do you talk with students so young?

It isn’t that complicated. Aspirations drive learning. Neither students nor adults are particularly good at putting a lot of time into learning something that they don't think will benefit them. We adults don't spend a lot of time learning things that we don't think will make our lives better in some way. If it is really true that American students are coming up short, I am convinced that it is not about ability; it is about aspirations and motivation. I spend my life listening to stories about underachieving, young, rural students who amaze their teachers and parents when they start working toward something they care about. They spend hours researching the courses that they could take at Unity College to become a game warden like they see on North Woods Law. The longer a student goes through education without some goals and aspirations, the less the student and we will accomplish. Grades 5 and 6 are really pivotal. Somewhere in those two grades most students develop an attitude towards education and they start to choose a path which either includes higher education or doesn't. In fairness, most students in more affluent southern Maine communities are born on a college track and will stay there. In rural Maine, the story is very different. Trying to pull a student back onto a college track late in his or her high school education is barely worth doing. We talk to third and fourth graders in Aroostook County who want to be farmers. We ask them to research colleges they could attend to become a farmer. We ask them to research what they would need to study in college. That to me is the future of Maine. Old-timers might say that you don't have to go to college to become a potato farmer, but there are plenty of them who now recognize that to be a successful potato farmer you need to be very smart. Education is, by far, the best and most enduring economic development program, the best and most enduring tax policy, the best and most enduring welfare program.

You focus on higher education. Do you really think that a college education is right for everyone?

I think a college education is great for everyone. I am a fan of knowledge. I am a fan of education. I can't think of a career where being smarter wouldn't help you. People always fuss about the word "college," and they ask, "What about trade schools?" I use the word "college" very broadly and very deliberately. "College" does have a much greater appeal to elementary school students than does “post secondary education.” When I ask about these trade schools the adults are talking about, I realize that they are usually talking about the local community college. K-12 education is an essential foundation. Higher education is where a learner adds the most value. It is where a student develops skills and knowledge that will put him or her ahead. Higher education is also where we come up with the best ideas on how to move our society forward and how to make the world a better place. I think everybody recognizes that. The word “college” just becomes a very sensitive issue, particularly for those who didn't take advantage of the opportunity in the past.

But do you really think that college education is an option for all students? Isn't it just financially out of reach for some families? College education costs a lot of money.

That is a myth. Some colleges are very expensive for some students. Many colleges aren't expensive at all. Some very expensive colleges are free for some students. I talk with third-graders and adults about this. One thing all third graders know about college these days is that it is “really expensive.” They have no clue how much it costs, but they have heard it is really expensive. Adults are no different. They are convinced that it is too expensive even though they don't know how much it costs. Furthermore, it is completely the wrong language. If you're going to buy shares of Apple stock, you don't ask how expensive it is. You don't try to spend as little as possible on your investment. You are mostly concerned about what your return will be. A college education is not an expense; it is an investment, and it is a great investment, with a much greater return than any stock you can buy on Wall Street. Regrettably, a lot of college students don't take full advantage of the opportunity of higher education. I have always said that high education is about 50% efficient. Most students gain about 50% of what they could.

This country loves to talk about the college graduate, with $30,000 of debt, who can't find a job in the first six months out of college. I am absolutely convinced that if you do college well, you are guaranteed a good career, and you are likely to make an additional $800,000 over a lifetime. Would I take out a $30,000 loan so I could make an additional $800,000 more over a lifetime and have a much better chance of having a career I really want? I would.

But it isn't good for students to be starting their career $30,000 in debt.

If you think you will be better off in life and better off financially by not going to college, don't go. It is your choice. I would rather have $30,000 of debt and a lifetime of opportunity ahead of me, than looking ahead to a life that seems to have a lot of constraints around it. We have debt with their houses. We have debt with our cars. We have plenty of debt in our life. We borrow from others and pay it off later so that we can better our lives. For some reason, this country hasn't gotten comfortable with the idea that students should have debt. I am not opposed to the idea of a 22-year-old college graduate having to give up $200 of social life money each month to pay back for college.

But do you really think that college education is affordable for even the lowest income families in Maine?

I do. I do because I have spent the last 25 years helping Maine students go to college, and talking with colleges all over the country. When I tell fourth graders that they can go to college for free, it usually gets their attention. Can they really go to college for free? Sure. Great grades are the key, and great grades come from effort, and students make the effort when they have the goals, the aspirations. Any student that makes an extra effort and starts getting great grades in elementary school and continues on that path will have a lot of great college opportunities, and some will be free, or pretty close to it. I talk to boys who want to go to Springfield College, where John Cena went, so they can be a famous pro wrestler like him, and they get buried in the research of figuring out what to study at Springfield College to become a pro wrestler. They figure out what it takes to get into the Springfield and what they will need to study now. Teachers see their attitude toward learning change that day.

Can third-graders really do that?

Absolutely, yes. You would be amazed. It just points to what students are able to do when they have their sights set on something down the road that looks good to them. I realize that many of them won't become pro wrestlers, but those aspirations drive a student to work harder and learn more, and it is quite likely that along the way they will find something even better than being a pro wrestler, if you can imagine it! I will always remember a boy, perhaps a 5th grader, in Rumford, who wanted to be a boxer and wanted to know where to go to college. I told him that the U.S. Air Force Academy has a very strong boxing program, and I advised him to look into that. He was part of an afterschool program that afternoon. I saw him there. He got onto the Internet, got to the U.S. Air Force Academy website, saw some boxers on the first page, and came up to me a little later all excited because he realized that they have planes there, too. It has everything he wants, and it's free, too! That excitement about future opportunities is a critical part of education, and for the most part, we have driven it out of our educational system, and replaced it with tests.

So you talk to elementary school students in all parts of the state of Maine. What do you talk to them about?

Right now, we talk to students at their schools in 46 mostly rural Maine communities, but we also talk to students at the Riverton School and the Reiche School and the Ocean Avenue School in Portland, and the students at all the elementary schools in Augusta. But, we try to reach more rural communities. We do a lot in Aroostook County and Washington County, and in the Skowhegan area, and the Rumford area, and Brownville and Milo. Primarily, what I offer is information. I've always been struck by the difference in the amount of information that students have in more affluent communities compared to a real lack of information in many rural communities. These rural students are very talented, and great people, and colleges are very interested in them, but they often know very little about the college process and they know about very few colleges. Most of the high school students I work with in southern Maine and throughout the country apply to colleges early decision or early action. It helps them get in. That's a world that many rural students never hear about, and I don't think that is the way we want it to be. We should at least make information about the opportunity of higher education equally accessible to everyone. That is the least we can do. So, I talk to young students, while they're still interested, about what college is, when it is, where it is, why it is. We talk about college. We talk a lot about different colleges all over the country. We talk a lot about college majors and which colleges are particularly good in certain programs. I talk about colleges with extra good video game design programs for all those boys hoping to spend their lives as video game testers. I talk about Tufts and Cornell and the University of Prince Edward Island for all those who want to become vets and take care of animals. I talk about Unity College and Thomas College and the University of Maine at Fort Kent and the University of Maine at Orono and the College of the Atlantic for all those boys who are watching North Woods Law. I talk about Moorpark College for those who want to grow up to be zookeepers. We talk about the University of New Hampshire for those who want to be gymnasts, or about the CIA or Johnson & Wales or Washington County Community College for those who want to be the next Ace of Cakes. We talk about Berklee College of Music or Vanderbilt for those who want to be the next Taylor Swift. For many of the students, the name of a college that would be good for them becomes a ticket.

We talk with students in Wallagrass, Eagle Lake, Fort Kent, Frenchville, Madawaska, Mars Hill, Brownville, Milo, Lagrange, Baileyville, Indian Township, Princeton, Robbinston, Eastport, Lubec, Charlotte, Edmunds, Pembroke, Perry, Sipayik/Pleasant Point, Whiting, Ellsworth, Hancock, Lamoine, Sullivan, Prospect Harbor, Steuben, Tremont, Southwest Harbor, Northeast Harbor, Bar Harbor, Swan’s Island, Islesford, Frenchboro, Trenton, Skowhegan, Norridgewock, Canaan, Bingham, Rumford, Mexico, Dixfield, Sumner, Buckfield, Peru, Hartford, Benton, Fairfield, Augusta , Portland, and Westbrook.

How do you fund these efforts in all these communities?

We try to keep our efforts very lean, so they will continue for the next 20+ years. It is very much a nonprofit initiative. We try to find as much financial support as possible from the communities, so that these efforts are theirs. Obviously, in some of the most economically challenged communities we support it is hard to find much financial support. We receive financial support from individuals who care about Maine and its future. Some of these individuals care about a particular community where they grew up. We receive financial support from credit unions and banks throughout Maine. cPort Credit Union and its CEO, Gene Ardito, have been real leaders in Portland and Augusta. Machias Savings Bank supports our efforts in Hancock, Washington, and Aroostook County. Ocean Renewable Power Company has been very supportive in the Cobscook Bay area. NorState Credit Union and Key Bank in Aroostook County, plus other community leaders. Taconnet Federal Credit Union has been central to our efforts around the Skowhegan and Waterville areas. We have a great group of credit unions coming together to support our new effort in Westbrook. More companies, banks, credit unions, and especially individuals become involved every month. And, our biggest supporter, throughout the entire state, has been the Dead River Company and its CEO, Bob Moore, who grew up facing some of the challenges faced by many of the kids we support and has a special appreciation for these challenges and the opportunities.

So what makes your Future of Maine initiative different from lots of other initiatives?

I think we have recognized how important it is to reach students and raise their aspirations when they are young, particularly in more rural communities. And, we push very hard to engage the community. Our goal is to just have this be a way of life in the community. That won't happen if it is just a program funded by some outside entity for five years. We work hard to have all the $100 College Aspirations Scholarships awards funded locally. We award the third through sixth grade scholarship recipients a VIP badge, which gives them VIP treatment when they visit college campuses in Maine, and gives them small benefits from local businesses. This is very much of a community initiative. We keep the initiative very lean. My experience is that when a large program comes into a small, rural, underfunded community, it doesn't last long, because it just doesn't become part of the fabric of the community. And, if an initiative remains just a school program, it will come up far short of what it could have achieved if it had been a community effort. And, perhaps the two biggest messages we give to students are that everyone has the opportunity to go to college, and that effort is the key — not intelligence, not location, not economic background — effort. Effort is the great equalizer. That is something that everyone can do, regardless of how fast their brain works. And, the effort theme runs through everything we do. Students don't win scholarships; they earn them. It takes a lot of work. We feel the same way about effort from the community. We think it is very important that communities make the effort to support the aspirations of their own children. Once a community gets dependent on others from elsewhere, they are headed downward fast.

This is not a political statement, but it is very clear to me that many of our current welfare programs do much more harm for our future than they do good. Our efforts are different because we are very focused on youth and on the future, and much less so on meeting the needs of the day.

And, there are many great efforts throughout the country that target a certain group of students and try to lift them out of their current situation. We give Future of Maine College Aspirations Scholarships to future sawmill operators, loggers, paleontologists, cardiothoracic surgeons, auto mechanics, lobstermen, global activists, musicians, pediatricians, videogame designers, fashion designers, bankers, authors, marines, marine biologists, game wardens, robotic engineers, and potato farmers. I like that we are raising the aspirations and opportunities for all students, not just the more gifted or the less gifted, or the more affluent or less affluent. That is the only way we will build a brighter future for our communities, our state, our country, and our world. If your goal is to build a brighter future for a community, you need to be raising the aspirations and opportunities of all students, not just a targeted few.

There are a lot of great efforts to help meet people’s needs. All of our efforts are squarely focused on building a brighter future. The greater the current need, the harder it is to stay focused on the future. If we lose our focus on the future, we will lose our communities.

Why do you focus so much of your effort on rural communities?

We don’t focus solely on rural communities, but that is certainly the largest part of our efforts. There is huge potential in these rural communities, and particularly in their youth. It is all there in these kids -- the 3rd grade, fourth generation, potato farmer who wants to build a potato-farming robot, the 5th grade girl who wants to become a state senator and help families that are struggling, the 4th grade boy who wants to continue his dad’s lobster business and go to college to study marine biology so we won’t ruin our oceans. Inner-city initiatives are much more popular these days, in large part because they are easier to see for those with the resources to help.

Are there common challenges for all the communities you are trying to support?

We support communities that are struggling to move forward, but I see some communities, I am thinking particularly of those in the St. John Valley at the top of Maine, that seem to have a heart to the community. I also see some that are struggling and disheartened. I am thinking particularly of former mill towns that lost their heart when the mill closed and they struggle to find a new heart. And, I see some communities that have lost their past, maybe rail or sardines or lumber, and there seems to be little left in terms of economy and heart.

What does the most damage to the heart of these communities is today’s American educational system and substance abuse. You would think those would be opposite ends of a spectrum. The best learning happens when one enthused and knowing person shares that enthusiasm and knowledge with another. Communities chose the idea of schools many years ago to help groups of younger community members learn to build a brighter future for themselves and their community. Things like “common cores” and standards and testing take the educational heart out of community and land it in elsewhere. And, quietly, a lot of these communities are being consumed by drugs and alcohol. A lot of communities talk quietly about how people are moving into their community from elsewhere, often bringing drugs with them, because of cheap housing and good welfare benefits and relative obscurity. That’s a very complicated issue, but I am pretty sure schools and aspirations are central to the solution. If we care about the future, we can’t afford to ignore this issue in these communities today.

So what are your goals? And how do you measure them?

Our goals are not to extract the best and brightest from their communities and ship them off to college. Our goal is very clearly to help build a brighter future for each of the communities we support. How do we measure our success? We try not to. Everybody is always asking us for numbers, often numbers or data that are a distraction and measure something else other than our goal. We don’t want to limit our goals to what can be easily measured by others. All year long we hear very positive and inspiring comments from teachers and school counselors and principals and students and parents that make it very clear to us that what we are doing has a very significant impact on the future of these kids and their communities. That is the data that matters. It isn't glamorous work, and it is very foundational, but together we are taking some very significant steps forward toward a brighter future.

It is clear that when it comes to education and aspirations and the economy there are two Maines. What do you think separates these two Maines?

I see three Maines and it is important to differentiate between the three. There is clearly a financially more comfortable Maine, much of which is in southern Maine. It is well-educated and confident and is engaged in the future of its communities. They set the bar high and they are among others who set the bar high.

In my mind, the more important part of Maine is the second Maine, which is based on a simple lifestyle. When I drive from southern Maine to the top of Aroostook County, the St. John Valley, I leave oversized houses in southern Maine and see simple, neat, small houses, often run by a family that works hard and lives a simple lifestyle. I see this second Maine as having the greatest potential to build a brighter future for Maine. Much of it is connected to agriculture and natural resources. Much of it is concerned about using these natural resources responsibly. They value their lifestyle and these resources and their role in the future more than they value money.

But then there is the third Maine which is poverty. It is very different from this simple lifestyle, and it is important to differentiate the two. Poverty is an attitude and a way of life. It is not measured in dollars and cents. There are people living this simple lifestyle that make less money than those we have declared to be living in poverty. And I don't believe that a child is born into poverty. But, very quickly, a child can be put onto a path of poverty. Poverty is built around five characteristics: despair, distrust, distance, dependence, and almost always, drugs and alcohol. The family living a simple life is often proud of their work and their life, they have hope, they have built trust with other members of their community and they feel part of it, they feel like they can change it if they want, and they are dependent upon themselves. They believe that they can accomplish what they want. They may partner with other members of the community, but they don't depend on others, or the state, or the federal government. And, poverty, no matter what others may say, is almost always surrounded by drug and/or alcohol abuse. Some of the most challenging communities we try to support are former mill towns where community members have lost hope, were once very dependent on the mill, are now looking for something to replace the mill that they can depend on, and drugs and alcohol become a very serious issue in the community.

So what can you/we actually do to keep kids from heading down a path of poverty?

I would like to think that that is what Maine College Circle is all about. We don't do research. We don't collect data. Children are born with hope. They are born on a path of hope. But, their environment often pushes them onto a path of poverty, and in some communities that happens at a very young age. We spend all of our time talking to students in grades three through six; we have chosen those grades very deliberately. Sometimes it is clear to us that third grade is too late. In some communities we run into parents who don't want their third grader to apply for a Future of Maine College Aspirations Scholarship for a multitude of hard to understand reasons, one of which is that they don't want to get their child's hopes up. At that point, the third-grader is getting steered off of a path of hope and onto a path of poverty.

We are convinced that information is the essential foundation to hope and aspirations. We are convinced that higher education is a huge influence on the life this third-grader will live. The value of higher education is not so much about learned knowledge; it is about confidence and connections. The most prestigious colleges in the country produce a lot of very successful business people and Presidents of the United States, not because the graduates are very smart, but because they believe in themselves and their ability to do whatever they want. So, we give young students information about higher education. We try to make it fun and we try to connect it to their lives. Then we ask them to do some research and to make an effort to write a really good essay about their aspirations. We don't just give them money. Then, we bring the whole community together to celebrate their aspirations and their success. And, we do much more to engage the community to support information and celebrate aspirations. There are a hundred stories from teachers and principals and parents and students and community members about how winning a Future of Maine College Aspirations Scholarship in elementary school has changed a student’s attitude about education and about effort and about their future. In many cases, we are nudging them off of a path of poverty and onto a path of hope. In many cases, they will fall back onto the path of poverty, and we hope that they will make the effort and earn a scholarship a second year and the third year and a fourth year. If we can celebrate their effort and aspirations enough times, we have a chance, with any child, regardless of how challenging their background may be, to build a better future -- to give them the information that they need and want, to help them believe in themselves, to help them understand that it is their effort and nobody else's that will determine their future, and if they have college plans since third grade, even though those plans and their college may change many times, we know that they are much more likely to make the most of the opportunity of higher education. This will build a brighter future for them and for their community, and that is good for us all.

I remember very clearly a Future of Maine College Aspirations Scholarship ceremony last spring at an elementary school in one of the most economically-challenged communities we support in rural Maine. The ceremony was a wonderful event, full of parents and pride and celebration and tears . . . and some young kids with some really hard stories. In the middle of this event, which I thought was very inspiring and uplifting, they began to deliver boxes of food over on one side of the gymnasium for families waiting for their food assistance. I saw some parents waiting outside the door for their box. That image really pointed out to me the challenge, and the two paths we and this state and this country can choose. I am convinced that only one has a chance to build a brighter future.

And, I will never forget some innocent comments from a third grade boy from a neighboring community who wrote a scholarship-earning essay about how he wanted to go to Unity College to become a zoologist. He concluded his essay with a sentence, "And not to brag but my family is kind of poor and so I could really use this scholarship." In its simplicity, it struck me as a boy right at the junction of two paths — a third grader who still has some pride and hope and yet he sees the challenges ahead. There is a lot of potential in young boys and girls like that. It is up to us to decide whether we will cultivate that potential or miss it.