Book icon Aspirations


For past generations of Mainers, a high school diploma and strong work ethic were often enough to achieve a comfortable lifestyle and economic stability. Today, that is no longer the case. As the job market has shifted away from manufacturing toward a knowledge-based economy, post-secondary education has become the key to individual prosperity and economic security.

The Mitchell Institute mission includes increasing student aspirations in every Maine community. Our state’s high school graduation rate is well above the national average, but we trail the rest of the nation in both college-going and college completion rates. While educational attainment has inched upward, gaps in college access and completion remain large. Maine students from low-income families are much less likely than their peers to complete high school, and those who do graduate are less likely to be “college-ready.” High-achieving students from low-income backgrounds are much less likely to attend selective colleges — and to complete college — than their higher-income peers.

Our research has documented high student aspirations. Our 2007 statewide study — From High School to College: Removing Barriers — found evidence of progress since 2002 such as:

        • More high school students getting exposure to college through campus visits;
        • Parents more involved in helping students plan for the future;
        • More schools embedding career- and college-planning into their day-to-day work.

We also identified many areas of concern related to student aspirations:

        • Parental education is a major determinant of students’ academic and financial preparation for college.
        • There are significant gaps between students’ and parents’ beliefs about the financial aid for college.
        • High school educators surveyed in 2007 named low student aspirations as the number one barrier to college in Maine. Parents’ lack of education and students’ lack of interest were numbers two and three.
        • Some Maine regions face particular constraints on student aspirations. College is valued less highly and parents are less involved in students’ future planning in Coastal Maine than in the other regions. Educators, parents, and students in Central/Western Maine do not feel as strongly as those in other regions that college is attainable and important.

In summer 2013 we surveyed Maine high school educators about these issues. The findings suggest that to better support Maine students’ aspirations, we need to:

        • More clearly demonstrate the connections between post-secondary education and the labor market both at home and beyond, and
        • Start earlier to help students shape their plans for the future.


Aspirations Survey of Maine High Schools

The Mitchell Institute worked with Great Schools Partnership, the MELMAC Foundation, and Maine Community Foundation to develop a survey gauging high school educator perceptions about student aspirations and community and school support for them. The report summarizes 155 survey responses, describes the mixed messages students are receiving, and looks at regional trends in different parts of Maine.

Removing Barriers to College

In 2006, the Mitchell Institute received a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and Bank of America to fund the second Removing Barriers Study, a study that synthesized information from student focus groups, parent phone interviews, educator and young adult surveys, and college enrollment data. The study documented Maine’s progress in the field of educational attainment, and identified issues that students face in making the transition from high school to college.