Josie Rideout, 20, in the Campus Center at Southern Maine Community College on Nov. 27. Rideout said Maine’s free community college program is the only reason she’s in school. But she still had to take out an $8,000 loan in her first year to live on campus. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Josie Rideout had no plans to go to college.

“I didn’t even finish high school,” she said. “I got a GED.”

Maine’s free community college program, said the 20-year-old from Kennebunk, is the only reason she’s now in her second year at Southern Maine Community College, well on her way to completing her liberal arts associate’s degree.

Rideout was never very fond of school and didn’t know what she wanted to study, she said, so an investment in higher education didn’t seem worth it. A friend suggested that with the free community college program, she was just hurting herself by not enrolling. She decided to give it a go.

She is now considering continuing on for a bachelor’s degree.

In April 2022, the state eliminated community college tuition and fees for all students who graduated high school or received an equivalent degree between 2020 and 2023. The program later expanded to include 2024 and 2025 graduates. Data from the community colleges shows it is succeeding on a number of fronts, including increased enrollment and retention.


But while many laud the program for doing what it was set up to do and improving overall affordability and access, some say the state really needs to give more help to the most financially disadvantaged students who already had free tuition but still have trouble covering other costs, like books and housing.

Free community college is great in theory, said Wil Del Pilar, senior vice president at the Education Trust, a national nonprofit working to improve equity in education from pre-K through college. But in reality, he said, not all free college programs in Maine and other states are increasing access for students from families living in or near poverty.

At Southern Maine Community College, the cost of a room and a meal plan is $10,938 – almost three times that of tuition and fees. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

For the state’s most economically disadvantaged students, tuition was already covered before Maine’s free college program went into effect. Federal Pell grants, which are awarded to students with exceptional financial need, fully or mostly covered tuition for about half of Maine community college students, according to the community college system.

This year, students can receive as much as $7,395 through the Pell program, almost double the $3,880 cost of tuition and fees at Maine’s community colleges. The grants do not have to be paid back and are usually awarded to students whose families have an annual income of $30,000 or less. They can use Pell money to cover tuition and – if there’s enough money left – other school-related expenses, including housing and books.

Maine’s free community college program is a last-dollar program, which means the state chips in only after students have used all other available public grants.

Therefore, the state is bearing none of the costs for the most disadvantaged students – and the students who benefit the most are those whose families make too much money to qualify for federal or state grants.


Del Pilar said that’s a problem and the most disadvantaged students should get more support.

“The design of the program is the exact opposite of what you want to do to address affordability,” he said.


The state’s launch of free community college came as enrollment for Maine’s public two- and four-year schools was plummeting and during a nationwide reckoning about the cost of college.

But since it started, the program has pulled in students from across the state and even the country, boosting enrollment at an unprecedented rate for the system that had been steadily losing students for a decade.

In 2023, the system enrolled 19,477 students, around 5,000 more than in 2021, the year before free community college was initiated, and the highest enrollment in the system’s 20-year history.


The increased financial support helped students stay in school. Almost 75% of students who enrolled under the program in fall 2022 came back for a second semester that spring, according to data from the Maine Community College System. Retention dropped to 69.1% for students who were not eligible for the program because they came from out of state or graduated before 2020.

Courtesy Maine Community College System

But while taking away the burden of tuition and fees is significant, non-tuition expenses can be hefty. At Southern Maine Community College, the cost of a room and a meal plan is $10,938 – almost three times that of tuition and fees.

Altogether, students who live on campus pay close to $15,000. So a student who received a full Pell Grant of $7,400 and wanted to live on-campus and get a meal plan would have to come up with about $8,000 a year out of pocket or look for private scholarships.

And even though many students live off campus, they often still have to find housing – which can be challenging and expensive in Maine’s tight affordable-housing market — and pay for food and transportation.

“It’s a false promise,” said Del Pilar of last-dollar free college programs. “Students get to school and realize they have to pay for their books, that they have to find a job, that they don’t know how they’re going to eat. Students assume free means free, but it doesn’t always work out that way.”

Rideout is grateful to have her tuition and fees covered by the state. But she’s also frustrated that the program doesn’t do more for more needy students.


“It doesn’t help the people who are actually struggling the most,” she said.

Rideout works to cut costs. She eats cheaply, lives at home with her mother and commutes 45 minutes each way to school.

She finds PDF versions of textbooks online rather than purchasing hard copies and takes good care of the supplies she needs for art classes so they last.

Still, it’s hard to make ends meet, she said – to cover food and transportation and pay off the $8,000 loan she took out her first year to live in an on-campus dorm. She works part time as a server at a French restaurant in Kennebunkport. During peak tourist season, she brings home around $1,500 a month – but in the winter months, much less.

“It’s not enough,” Rideout said.

Next semester, she’s planning to transition to being a part-time student so she can work more. She doesn’t want to slow down school but feels it is the best way to stay afloat financially.


“I’m just trying to figure out how to take classes and continue to do art and work enough to support myself,” she said.


In a perfect world, all costs associated with attending the first two years of college would be covered for all students, said David Daigler, president of the Maine Community College System.

In this day and age, he said, people need – at a minimum – the type of credentials and skills offered by community college to move up in and grow the economy. Permanently providing two years of free college to everyone in Maine “would be a universal good,” he said.

But this isn’t a perfect world, Daigler said, and even if Maine’s free community college program is flawed, it’s still opening doors for students in need.

The data shows it has encouraged more low-income students to enroll in school. Since its onset, the number of students receiving Pell Grants has risen somewhat.


In the fall 2020 semester, 5,074 Pell Grant recipients were enrolled. This past fall, there were 5,771.

“These are students who otherwise couldn’t have afforded higher education and didn’t see going to college as an option,” Daigler said. “Free community college provides a pathway to gain traction in the economy and get started.”

The campus of Southern Maine Community College. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Michelle Miller-Adams, a professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, has been studying free tuition college programs for around 18 years. She agrees with Daigler: Helping any student who is struggling with community college affordability is a good thing.  

“Affluent kids don’t go to community college,” she said. “They just don’t. We’re helping kids who need help.”

For students who thought college was off the table for them financially, she said, free community college shows them that getting a degree is an option.

But while Maine’s program is valuable, the gold standard of free community college is a first-dollar program, Miller-Adams said.


In first-dollar programs, states absorb the tuition costs first, and then students who are eligible for other grants, like a Pell Grant, can use that additional money to pay for other expenses like housing and food. This means that the most disadvantaged students get the most support.

First-dollar programs do the most to help students stay in school and graduate, Miller-Adams said. It’s about equity, not equality.


Almost all states that provide some sort of free community college use the last-dollar model because it’s cheaper.

New Mexico is the only state with a first-dollar program.

Using a last-dollar program in Maine was a conscious choice, said Heather Johnson, commissioner of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.


“We chose the last-dollar model because we were trying to remove as much of the financial barrier for young people as possible to help them get into the workforce while being fiscally responsible to the taxpayer,” Johnson said. “We feel good about the program, how it stands today, the value it has brought to individuals who are getting free community college and the broader economy.”

Many students do as well.

Winnie LaRochelle, a second-year student from Rangeley majoring in criminal justice at Central Maine Community College, pays around $3,000 a semester to live on the college’s Auburn campus. She said the cost caused her some initial sticker shock.

“It’s been eye-opening to see how expensive room and board are,” she said. But LaRochelle, who always planned on going to college and anticipated taking on debt, feels lucky that that’s all she has to pay.

Winnie LaRochelle, 19, a criminal justice major at Central Maine Community College, takes part in a training exercise in November. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“I cannot imagine what my bills would look like if I were paying tuition, too,” said LaRochelle, who covers her expenses with money from her summer job working at the campground her parents own. “I still see that I’m getting a really great deal.” 

Rideout, of Kennebunk, wishes for her own benefit that the free college program helped students pay non-tuition college costs, but even more so for people who don’t have family they can stay with and can’t afford other housing options.

“It’s important for the administration to understand that everyone is in a unique situation and to understand how students are struggling,” she said.

She urged other students to make sure they understand the financial costs, even with free tuition.

“If this is the first major financial decision you are making, make sure you do it well,” she said.

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