December 11, 2011
“Over $8.2 million has been awarded in scholarship assistance to more than 1,800 Maine students,” said Senator George Mitchell about the Mitchell Scholarship Program. photo by Ramona du Houx
“The greatest honor of my life was to serve as a senator representing the people of Maine. Beyond my family, my scholarship program is the most important thing in my life,” said Senator George Mitchell. “In America no one should be guaranteed success, but everyone should have a fair chance to succeed.”

The scholarship initiative that Mitchell referred to is part of and administered by the Mitchell Institute. In 1995 Mitchell founded the Mitchell Scholarship Program to increase the likelihood that students from every community in Maine will aspire to, pursue, and obtain college degrees.

“Over $8.2 million has been awarded in scholarship assistance to more than 1,800 Maine students,” said Mitchell.

Each year one graduating senior from every public high school in Maine is selected to receive a Mitchell Scholarship. The amount of each scholarship is up to $6,000, which translates to $1,500 for each year of college, for a maximum of four years.

The institute’s work does much more than fundraising.

“We have programs that help our scholars with mentoring, leadership, and community services,” said Mitchell. “Last year alone they spent 30,000 hours on community service projects.”

Mitchell Scholars have a 95 percent college graduation rate while only 55 to 65 percent of other college students complete their degrees. The institute is also dedicated to finding solutions to this problem, as well as how to get students to college in the first place.

“We’ve published a number of reports that have been distributed and recognized nationwide. We administrated a pioneering project on education with the Gates Foundation a few years back. We’ve done groundbreaking studies and work, establishing, determining, and publishing what are the barriers to higher education and how best they can be overcome,” said Mitchell.

“These youngsters don’t lack talent — they lack resources. We’ve questioned and come up with solutions as to how we can make college opportunities available to more and more youngsters who, because of economic circumstances, may not be able to take advantage of a college education.”

Mitchell’s dedication to helping students achieve a higher education stems from his own experiences.

“When I was sixteen I remember being insecure, uncertain about my future. There was a real chance that I may have never gone to college,” said Mitchell. “When I traveled around the state as a senator, visiting all 130 high schools, I saw in many of the youngsters a mirror image of myself. That’s when I resolved to do my best to help them. I had received helping hands from many people. Some people saw something in me I didn’t know I had.
I wanted to help others get the same chance I had.”

Mitchell’s mother was an immigrant and his father an orphaned son of immigrants. They made their home in Waterville, Maine. His father was a janitor at Colby College.

In high school Mitchell’s English teacher, Elvira Whitten, became one of the first people who encouraged him to become more academic.

“Mrs. Whitten was kind, smart and caring. Every student idolized her. One day she asked me to stay after school. I was terrified I had done something wrong. She sat me down and asked me, ‘What do your read?’ I told her just the required list for school. Then she handed me a book, The Moon is Down, by John Steinbeck,” said Mitchell.

Every time he finished one book Whitten gave him another to read.

“That began a life of reading; she changed my life.” said Mitchell. “I try hard everywhere I go to promote education for Maine young people.”

Mitchell said that the benefits of college far outweigh the cost, as a person with a degree earns about a million dollars more than a person with a high school diploma, over a lifetime. And a person with bachelor’s degree earns more — and pays $171,000 more in income taxes — than a high school graduate.

“Over the long term, education pays off. When you earn more you demand less of government services, and you pay higher taxes. In Maine the unemployment rate for college-educated workers is 3 percent compared to over 7.5 percent with a high school degree,” said Mitchell. “Those who have had past benefits like a college education owe it to others to help.”

As more and more information becomes available with the Internet, institutes of higher education will play an increasing role that Mitchell said would be the “glue that holds American society together. Success in human affairs will be and always has been based in knowledge. Higher education institutions are the only place with the continuing purpose of constantly reexamining our society’s assumptions. It’s where we hone our reasoning skills — which are critical to the growth of our Democracy. That’s the most important contribution of higher education.”

Mitchell said President Obama has helped making a college education more accessible by doubling funding for Pell Grants and financial aid. Pell Grant recipients grew from 6 million in 2008 to 9 million in 2011. And a new $2,500 American Opportunity tax credit for tuition expenses helped 9.4 million college students in 2011.

Obama also invested $2 billion in competitive grants for community colleges, expanded the GI education bill, funded early-learning programs, and the Race to the Top initiative for education reform.

“The president has done a lot for education,” said Mitchell.

And Sen. Mitchell continues to do so for Maine.