AUGUSTA (AP) – The two northernmost campuses of Maine’s technical college system will get a jump Tuesday on the other five when the system celebrates its transformation to the nation’s 46th community college network.

“It’s the dawning of a new era,” said Brian Hamel, chairman of the Maine Technical College System, who planned to join administrators of Presque Isle’s Northern Maine Technical College as they ride a chairlift to the top of Mars Hill in time to watch the sun rise at 4:42 a.m.

Hamel said Mars Hill is reputed to be the first spot in Maine to be touched by the morning light at this time of year.

Not to be outdone, officials at Calais’ Washington County Technical College will sail the 36-foot lobster-style boat used at its marine technology center in Eastport to the international boundary near Campobello Island, New Brunswick, where the sun rises a few minutes earlier than on the mainland.

“We want to be sure to be the first to greet the sun,” said Bill Flahive, the school’s president. Aboard the boat will be a banner with the new name, Washington County Community College.

Later in the day, each of the seven campuses hosts a celebration of the birth of the new system, Hamel said. At Southern Maine Technical College in South Portland, for example, the festivities were taking place on land, air and sea as the Portland fireboat sprays plumes of water and a plane flying overhead tows a banner with the name Southern Maine Community College.

“People are getting into it,” said Alice Kirkpatrick, spokeswoman for the college system. “It’s been a lot of work to get here and it’s good news for Maine. So every now and then you have to stop and celebrate.”

It appears that the name change already is starting to pay off. Applications for enrollment at the schools are up from last year, college system president John Fitzsimmons said.

“Last year we had record enrollment, and this fall it looks like there will be a double-digit increase across the system,” he said.

By 2010, the colleges hope to enroll 11,000 students, up from 7,500 in 2002. The changes are part of an overall focus on higher education in a state where most students graduate from high school, but few go on to college.

Statistics show only 7 percent of recent high school graduates in Maine enroll in the state’s public two-year colleges, while the national average is 17 percent.

Only 23 percent of Maine residents have bachelor’s degrees, compared to the New England average of about 31 percent.

Maine will join 45 other states that have community colleges. Over time, officials anticipate a number of improvements:

• There will be a stronger emphasis on preparing students to continue their education at four-year colleges.

• Students will be able to enter the college before they select a course of study. Under the technical college system, students had to meet prerequisites to enter a particular program.

• Courses will be added, particularly in the arts and sciences.

Barbara Woodlee, president of the Kennebec Valley Technical College in Fairfield, said the transition has been a long time coming.

“We will see enrollments continue to increase,” she said. “We will have more comprehensive services to offer the community we serve. Ultimately, the region will be better served.”

Gov. John Baldacci and the Legislature earmarked $1 million for the community colleges to spend on the transition over the next two years.

Since the new fiscal year starts on Tuesday, that’s when the college system will have access to that funding.

The money will be used mostly to strengthen academic counseling on each campus, because counselors will be taking a more active role in working with students, Fitzsimmons said.

The colleges began as vocational technical institutes in 1946 and were designed to retrain World War II veterans for civilian jobs.

In 1989, the names were changed to designate them as technical colleges.

Fitzsimmons said the colleges have full accreditation but are changing their accrediting bodies in order to ease the transfer of credits to out-of-state schools.

“As of July 1, you could not tell the difference between Maine, Massachusetts or California community colleges,” he said.

AP-ES-06-30-03 1229EDT

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