Program hopes to entice college graduates to stay in Maine

As people return to Maine for Thanksgiving, state officials hope many of them will consider moving back full time. (WGME)

PORTLAND (WGME) – As people return to Maine for Thanksgiving, state officials hope many of them will consider moving back full time.

One reason to stay is a program that helps people pay off their student loans.

It's called Opportunity Maine, and it started in 2008 as a retention program to keep Maine graduates in Maine.

In 2016, the program opened up to any American graduate who moved and started working in Maine.

"The 'Opportunity Maine' tax credit is the most generous debt relief program in the nation," Live + Work Maine Engagement Director Nate Wildes said.

Only 11 people used it in 2008 when it started, but in 2013, when it started offering STEM graduates direct refunds, the program was doling out $4.3 million to nearly 5,000 graduates, a 530 percent increase.

"The gist is this: you live and work in Maine full-time; you make your student debt payments every single month, at the end of the year when you file your state income tax return with the state, you get a credit for every month you paid your student debt payments," Wildes said.

Over four years, people in the program received on average $1,720, but it can go even higher.

"It's worth up to about $4,500 a year,” Wildes said. “So, for nearly $5,000 in money just for making your student debt payments, that's a pretty generous credit."

In 2016, a change opened the program to any graduate from a U.S. university.

After that, nearly 8,000 people took advantage of the program, that's a 28 percent increase.

It saw another increase of 15 percent last year, leading to more than 9,000 people getting credits of more than $17 million.

But some state lawmakers say Opportunity Maine isn't much of an opportunity.

Look for more legislation to be introduced in January to potentially bolster the debt relief program.

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