AUBURN — After graduating from Edward Little High School in 2006, Kate Dargie enrolled at New England University. One year later she transferred to Central Maine Community College, because she wanted to go to college without incurring debt.
Annual tuition at Maine's community colleges, which only offer two-year degrees, is $3,000. Annual tuition at UNE, which offers four-year and more degrees, is $29,430.
Dargie, 23, got her two-year degree at CMCC, then a job there as communications coordinator. Today she is working on her four-year degree online through St. Joseph's College.
Because of the money she saved by going to CMCC, “I was able to buy a home,” Dargie said.
Katie Stover, 18, graduated from Telstar Regional High School in Bethel last year and is enrolled in CMCC's automotive parts and service management program.
Coast Guard veteran Ron Fowler, 28, of Auburn, is enrolled in CMCC's criminal justice program. Stover and Fowler cited price as one reason they're there.
When it comes to an affordable education, Dargie, Stover and Fowler have lots of company.
Since 2003, when Gov. John Baldacci and state legislators changed the Maine Technical College System to the Maine Community College System, enrollment statewide has shot up 76 percent. In 2002 it was 10,127; in 2010 it was 17,779.
Experts say the change in name, and mission, meant thousands of Mainers, who otherwise might not have gone to college, went.
“Personally I think this is the greatest accomplishment of John Baldacci,” said Colleen Quint of the Mitchell Institute, an organization founded to encourage Maine students to go to college. “It opened so many doors,” Quint said. “It was a paradigm shift.” Students thinking about trying college “now had something close to home, less expensive, they could test out.”
Lewiston High School Director of Guidance Stephen Clark agreed that changing to a community college system has “been huge” for students.
“It really opened doors for kids,” Clark said. When the system was technical colleges, the programs were very specific. High school students unsure of what they wanted to do weren't likely to consider a technical program.
When the system became community colleges and general education and liberal arts programs were added, “kids who had not been considering higher education all of a sudden had an opportunity, both with the course work and financially.”
Initially high school students weren't that interested in attending a community college, Clark said. They considered it not a “real college. Now that whole stigma has changed.”
The community college system is one reason why Lewiston and other high schools have improved the percentage of high school graduates going onto higher education, Clark said.
Of last summer's 268 graduates, “we had 48 kids go to Central Maine Community College,” about 20 percent, Clark said. “We send more kids to CMCC than anyplace else.”
Maine Community College System President John Fitzsimmons said his system has worked to keep the price low, recognizing how important that is.
In the last 13 years, tuition has been frozen eight years, Fitzsimmons said. “Last year it went up $60 for a full-time student.”
Maine has the lowest income in New England, so “our tuition has to be the lowest in New England,” Fitzsimmons said.
The system keeps the price low by running with as few administrators as possible, he said. It also goes without the amenities that other four-year colleges have, such as a big sports program and a theater. “We see ourselves as high quality. We give students what they need to be successful without additional frills. Our students are practical.”
Fitzsimmons said students get quality classes. The system boasts that 93 percent of graduates find employment or continue on their education, Fitzsimmons said. In the last three years, the system's graduates have transferred to 140 different institutions, “from Bates College to Simmons and universities. Students who leave our system adjust as successfully” as those who completed their first two years at more traditional colleges or universities, Fitzsimmons said.
What community college students need is provided, Fitzsimmons said. They need to raise their confidence they will succeed, “a small, supportive environment, a price that worked for them.”
While experts praise the community college system as critical to the state and students, there is one drawback, according to Lewiston High School Guidance Director Stephen Clark.
Community college graduates who continue their education and enroll in a bachelor's degree program sometimes discover not all of their credits are accepted by institutions such as the University of Maine or the University of Southern Maine.
“Different campuses accept different credits,” Clark said. That can mean some students, after finishing their associate degree, may have to go a semester or a year longer, he said.
Lewiston High counsels students who want to get their two-year degree at a community college to know where they want to go for their bachelor's degree so they take the right classes and have credits transferred.
The community college system has made transfer improvements. CMCC President Scott Knapp said that transfers "are working exceptionally well." Some career courses don't transfer to four-year degree programs, he said. And CMCC provides an adviser to help students avoid having to repeat a semester.
That helps, Clark said. “But I still think it's tricky. I'd like to see it be seamless.”