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Schools & Education
Posted
Updated August 1
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Applications swell with Maine’s offer of free community college

The state's seven community colleges see an 11 percent increase in summer applications compared to this time last year.

Graca Muzela is heading into his second year at Washington County Community College where he is pursuing electrical engineering. Prior to the free college scholarship, Muzela wasn’t sure if he would be able to afford to finish his degree. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Student of the year, a dorm resident adviser and a speaker of five languages, Graca Muzela proved himself to be an all-star student during his first year at Washington County Community College. He is passionate about his education and dreams of finishing his associate degree, becoming an electrical engineer and saving up to buy his parents a house. 

But up until a few months ago, he wasn’t sure he would even be able to attend college for a second year.

“I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it,” he said. “I was just so worried.”  

But the 20-year-old’s concerns disappeared this spring when the state approved a plan to pay the tuition and fees for full-time community college students who graduated from high school or passed an equivalency exam during the years 2020 through 2023.  

While college is often crucial to future success, it’s expensive. For the 2021-2022 school year, tuition to attend one of Maine’s seven community colleges was $2,880 per year for in-state students and $5,760 for out-of-state students. But that doesn’t include the cost of fees, books, or room and board, which this past year ranged from $7,600 to $12,000 for both in-state and out-of-state students. Although federal and state grants and scholarships are available for low-income students, they often don’t completely cover the cost of education and living expenses and are rarely available to immigrants, like Muzela.

The Maine Legislature allocated $20 million for the initiative in the $1.2 billion supplemental budget it passed in April. The state said it expects the program to supplement or fully pay community college tuition and other mandatory fees for 8,000 students.

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Muzela said he felt a weight lift from his shoulders when he found out his tuition would be covered for the upcoming school year. His eyes lit up and a smile spread across his face as he talked about free college. “I was so happy when I heard,” he said, shaking his head almost in disbelief.  

STUDENTS TAKE ADVANTAGE OF FREE COLLEGE

Interest in attending the state’s community colleges has spiked since free college was announced in April. As of Thursday, the system had received 11 percent more applications from new students compared to the same time last year. So far this summer, 13,919 students have applied to attend a Maine community college in the fall compared to 12,551 students at the same time last year. Community colleges are even seeing slightly increased attention from prospective students compared to this time in 2019, before the pandemic.

This comes against the backdrop of a decade of declining enrollment at institutions of higher education in Maine and around the country.

At a registration event at Southern Maine Community College in July, faculty advisers walked incoming students through course sign-ups and fielded questions about classes and free college. Arianna Miller, an 18 year old from Auburn, said before the free college announcement, she wasn’t sure if she would go to college or get a full-time job. She was thinking of trying to pick up more hours at the sports bar where she works as a hostess. But when she found out college tuition would be covered, she decided to sign up. She wants to be a firefighter.

Another incoming student, Kaleb McPhail, 19, said he was planning to go to Thomas College in Waterville, where he’s from, but when he found out tuition would be free at the state’s community colleges he decided to enroll there instead. McPhail hopes to become a K-9 police officer. He has three dogs at home and said it’s been his dream job since he was a kid.

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FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE, WITH CONDITIONS

The concept of providing free college is not new or unique to Maine but over the past decade the idea has become more popular. It was a significant plank in President Biden’s platform when he was running for office, although it doesn’t look like free college will be supported on the federal level anytime soon. First lady Jill Biden, who is a community college teacher, has been pushing for free community college for decades.

Many states have some sort of free or subsidized college program at the institution, city or state level.

In March, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, signed into law the most inclusive tuition-free college program in the country. The New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship Act waives tuition for both full- and part-time students attending in-state, public two- and four-year institutions, and is available to returning adult learners and immigrants regardless of their immigration status.

Maine’s free college scholarship is only available to students who graduated between 2020 and 2023 and requires that students enroll by spring 2024 and complete their degree within two years.

Students also must first accept any other state or federal grants or scholarships awarded to them. The Maine free college scholarship will cover the cost of tuition and mandatory fees after other state or federal grants and scholarships have been applied. This method of funding, called last-dollar funding, means that tuition and fees will be covered but other significant costs such as books and room and board will not.

FREE COLLEGE GAINS POPULARITY NATIONALLY

Free college programs have been popular, resulting in spikes in applications and enrollments like those being seen in Maine.  They also  underscore the idea that the cost of college is a substantial barrier to people seeking post-secondary education and when that barrier is taken away more students will show up.

“We believe providing free college is the most effective policy that a state government can enact to help build its economic future while providing immediate opportunities for young people in the state,” said Morley Winograd, president of the nonprofit Campaign for Free College Tuition.

Winograd said that removing the obstacle of cost will increase levels of higher education across the board, providing more people with opportunity for economic mobility and increasing the nation’s GDP by increasing individual incomes.

Studies consistently show that higher degrees lead to higher incomes. People with bachelor’s degrees make on average $2.8 million over the course of their careers; people with associate degrees make $2 million; and people with a high school diploma make $1.6 million, according to a 2021 Georgetown University study.

Most people are in favor of free college. Among U.S. adults, 63 percent are in favor of making all public college free and 36 percent are opposed, according to a 2021 poll by the Pew Research Center. Democrats, minorities and people under 50 view free college more favorably compared to white adults, Republicans and people over 50. Only 18 percent of Republicans over 50 who have a four-year degree are in favor of free public college, according to the same poll. Opponents say that providing free college is financially unsustainable and unfair to those who took on debt to go to college in the past.

But Gov. Janet Mills said that by educating Maine’s students and training them to go into fields with high demand for workers, free college will support the Maine economy as it works to rebound from the pandemic and struggles with the workforce shortage plaguing the country.

“We need to beef up the number of people going into the trades,” she said. “These are well-paying jobs that you can get in Maine and remain in the state to live and raise a family.”

As it stands now, the free college scholarship is only available to students who graduated during the pandemic. But Mills said she may push for the program to be continued after next fall. “We will be looking at all aspects of the program and hoping to continue it based on the funds available,” she said.

Maine’s free college scholarship will likely be especially impactful for new Mainers, who are often left out of state and federal financial aid programs. At the federal level, green-card holders, refugees, asylum grantees and other specific groups are eligible for federal financial aid, but it can often take years if not decades to get a green card or be granted refugee or asylum-seeker status.

Graca Muzela, who fled Angola three years ago with his parents and three siblings, said his immigration status is one of the primary reasons that the free college scholarship is so important to him. Last year he was not eligible for any state or federal financial aid. He was able to pay for college with a patchwork of private grants and scholarships and help from community members who saw potential in him. But that kind of support is unusual.

A few of Muzela’s friends from Angola who live in Maine opted not to enroll in college last year because of financial barriers. But this year, Muzela said, he told them that college was free and now they’re in the application process at Southern Maine Community College.

Other students have had similar reactions to free college. Lewiston High School Aspirations Coordinator Kate Chase said many of the students she works with who were hesitant to go to college because they didn’t want to take on loans decided to give college a try when they heard it would be free. “As soon as this was announced, kids were like this is a no-brainer,” she said.

“It’s great to tell these kids about this and let them know that they can live out their dreams without taking out substantial loans,” said Chase. “It takes a huge burden off them.”

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