News icon January 2023 Strategy Session with Staff: James Patefield

In this month’s Strategy Session with Staff, Project Associate James Patefield shares data-informed insights about Mitchell Scholars’ education-related debt levels.

A photo of James Patefield

Data has been a key part of the Institute’s success from its inception. Since 2000, the Institute has annually surveyed all Mitchell Scholars and Alumni so that we can better understand their attitudes and capture information about the Scholar/Alumni population. This data has served as the cornerstone for the Institute’s performance measurement efforts, as we can gather information on where Scholars and Alumni want to live and work, what careers and fields they want to pursue, and what Institute resources or programs they find especially helpful.

Since 2014, we have had another invaluable arrow in our data quiver: the ever-crucial Comparison Group survey, which essentially serves as a control group for our program interventions and is composed of students who applied for and in many cases were finalists for the Mitchell Scholarship but did not end up being selected.

Through mining our database and results from nearly 4,000 surveys we receive each year, I curate longitudinal briefs for the Scholarship and Research Committee of the Mitchell Institute’s Board of Directors. These briefs include data points that are regularly included in our Scholar dashboard, such as connection to Maine, confidence in finding a job in a field of interest, and ability to repay student loans or overcome financial obstacles.

We often talk about how reducing student loan debt is a key concern as college debt continues to rise to previously unseen heights across the country. For Mitchell Scholars in particular, we have long held that less debt and greater confidence in the ability to repay debt has marked longer-term impacts: not only are Scholars with less debt more likely to graduate in the first place, but after they graduate, they are more likely to feel confident about taking risks, to feel supported in their goals and pursuits, and to view financial setbacks as surmountable.

It is always most exciting for me in my work at the Mitchell Institute when common sense is backed up by interesting data.

Since 2018, we have seen a consistent trend: Mitchell Scholars incur less debt — and are less concerned about repaying it — than their peers. The most striking change is the share of Mitchell Scholars who are graduating with absolutely no debt (indicated in green in the charts below), which has nearly doubled over the past few years, from 17% in 2020 to more than a third (34%) in 2022.

Graduating Scholar Debt, 2022

Comparison Group Debt, 2022

Self-Reported Levels of Concern over Student Debt Repayment

By overlaying demographic markers from our MIX database to survey data, we can see some interesting additional detail that hints at Scholar and young Alumni behavior: Of the Scholars who borrowed between $10,000 and $19,999 in student debt, the vast majority are experiencing socioeconomic challenges (that is, their household income was less than $50,000 at the time of their selection as Mitchell Scholars). This underscores the savviness and prudence of Mitchell Scholars in their college financial decision-making. Those Scholars who take on the highest levels of debt tend to have higher levels of economic support at home.

This suggests many further actions we can continue to take as an organization, including increasing financial-aid literacy, mentoring opportunities for Alumni around finances/managing debt, and considering how to best help applicants who do not end up receiving the Mitchell Scholarship so that we can ensure stronger outcomes for all Maine students.

As always, I welcome any questions you may have about our data and how it informs our decisions. — James

As Project Associate, James Patefield works to measure the outcomes of the Institute’s programs through performance measurement and research. James received a B.A. in Theatre and English from Muhlenberg College and has previously worked in a variety of communications and fundraising roles at nonprofit and arts organizations throughout the Northeast. He volunteers with PortFringe Festival and is the President of the board of Speak About It. In 2022, James and his partner, Mackenzie O’Connor, were named among Maine Magazine’s Mainers of the Year.