AUGUSTA, Maine -- As many college graduates grapple with poor job prospects and crushing student debt, Maine officials hope a new database will help prospective students make more informed choices about what degree to pursue and how much they can afford to borrow for their education.
The database, set to be unveiled to the public next month, will allow users to view the earnings of recent graduates from Maine schools, by major. That information can ensure prospective students don't blindly borrow tens of thousands of dollars without knowing their job prospects, officials say.
"Maine is absolutely taking the first step in what could really be a game changer for higher education," said House Democratic Leader Seth Berry of Bowdoinham. He sponsored the bill that's facilitating the release of the information to the public and the creation of task force, made up of lawmakers and education officials, that will oversee its further development.
Users, for example, will be able to see how many people who completed a bachelor's degree in nursing at the University of Maine at Augusta are working and what their wages are in their first year after graduation. Then they would be able to compare how nursing graduates are faring across all schools.
For now, the database will only include the state's public universities and community colleges and the wages of graduates who work in Maine. Officials hope in the future that it will also be able to track how graduates are doing three and five years after school.
Maine's Education and Labor departments have been collaborating on the project for three years, using $1.5 million in federal grants, said Chris Boudreau, the director of the Center for Workforce Research and Information. They matched records of graduates between 2009 and 2011 with wage data gathered from tax reports, he said.
Boudreau plans to demonstrate the new database before the task force next month.
The concern over crippling student debt is driving a push to make this kind of information available to the public across the country, said John Dorrer, program director for the Jobs for the Future's Building Economic Opportunity Group and former acting commissioner of Maine's Department of Labor.
Six other states -- Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia -- have built similar sites in collaboration with College Measures. The group was formed by the American Institutes for Research, which aims to apply lessons learned in social science research, and Matrix Knowledge, a software consulting company.
"There are a lot of concerns about whether we are getting the bang for the buck out of higher education," Dorrer said.
Some questioned whether providing students with such information will discourage students from choosing programs in the humanities, which may not send students into high paying jobs immediately after graduation.
But officials said that the point is not to scare students from choosing certain majors and that users would likely find that humanities graduates are faring better several years after graduation.
The federal grants for the project are expected to run out by the end of the year, so the task force will be tasked with looking for future funding, deciding what other factors the database should illustrate and how to best market it to students.