Early fall enrollment in Maine’s community college system has increased 18% from a year ago, a second straight double-digit increase attributed to the state’s free tuition program.

“The Free College Scholarship is unleashing a new generation of skilled college graduates who are fast-tracked to join the workforce – which Maine businesses desperately need right now – or transfer seamlessly to a four-year college,” David Daigler, president of the Maine Community College System, said in a statement. “People want to learn new skills and pursue their dreams, but money can hold them back. This shows what investing in people hungry for an education can do.”

Enrollment in community colleges and public universities declined nationwide leading up to and during the pandemic. Between fall 2017 and fall 2021, the Maine Community College System’s seven schools saw an 8% drop in enrollment.

Maine’s Free College Scholarship program, which started last fall, was proposed by Gov. Janet Mills in early 2022 and enacted by the Legislature a few months later. In the program’s first year, the system reported a 12% increase in early fall enrollment.

In July, the scholarship was extended to the high school graduating classes of 2024-25 under the budget passed by the Legislature and signed by Mills. The 18% increase announced Thursday is expect to be even larger as more students enroll into the fall. Official enrollment numbers are calculated in mid-October. Central Maine Community College saw the biggest enrollment jump among the seven schools – a 26% increase from a year ago.

The free tuition program is intended to help students whose educations were disrupted by the pandemic and to prepare more young people to enter the state’s workforce at a time of severe labor shortages also triggered by the pandemic.

Some have raised concerns that the program is siphoning students away from the University of Maine System, which has seen a continued enrollment decline. But supporters of the program point out that many of the students going to community colleges because of the free tuition will eventually transfer to UMaine to continue their educations and earn four-year degrees.

“The scholarship has been very successful in attracting people who didn’t go right off to college in 2020 and 2021,” said Dr. Janet Sortor, vice president and chief academic officer for the system. “Across the state, we hear from high school counselors, parents and the students themselves that many of these Free College students simply wouldn’t have gone to college otherwise. It finally put a great education within financial reach.”

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