AUGUSTA, ME — Early fall enrollment is up 18 percent at Maine’s community colleges, boosted by a new scholarship for recent high school graduates, expanded programs, and an easing of pandemic-related restrictions.
“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,” said David Daigler, president of the Maine Community College System (MCCS). “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.”
Community college enrollment nationwide dipped dramatically during the pandemic, with a 17 percent decline in 2020, according to National Student Clearinghouse data. The Free College Scholarship, which started last fall, was intended to re-engage people whose high school and early college experience was disrupted by COVID, particularly since most community colleges serve higher percentages of first generation and lower income students.
The increase in community college students is expected to result in more transfer students going to four-year colleges. MCCS, which has a long-standing block transfer agreement with the University of Maine System (UMS), is actively expanding program-level transfer agreements with individual UMS colleges and other colleges in Maine to capitalize on the influx of students and provide clear academic pathways so students can seamlessly transfer to a four-year college.
Another factor boosting enrollment is a surge of interest in short-term workforce programs that take less than a year to complete and have invigorated overall campus activity at Maine’s community colleges. Some students enrolled in either short-term or degree programs are cross-enrolling to expand the breadth and depth of their education. At Washington County Community College, residential and commercial electricity student Brandon Vinal decided to enroll in a short-term workforce program in fiber optics.
“I saw an opportunity to push myself,” said Vinal, who completed his electrical degree program this spring and is enrolled this fall in the electromechanical instrumentation technology program. Vinal wants to eventually be a licensed master electrician.
Maine’s community colleges have vastly expanded short-term workforce training in recent years due to major investments from the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan and the Harold Alfond Foundation. In the last year, over 12,000 people enrolled in short-term workforce training programs, up from nearly 3,000 in the previous year. More than 24,000 Mainers are expected to complete short-term training through Maine’s community colleges between 2022 and 2025.
Fall enrollment was also boosted by adding more than 200 seats to the colleges’ nursing programs statewide. The colleges also lifted pandemic-related restrictions, including the student COVID-19 vaccination requirement and limiting residence halls to one student per room.
The early enrollment figures do not include high school students enrolled in Early College programs or students in short-term workforce training programs. Official fall enrollment figures are calculated on October 15. Final fall enrollment is likely to greatly increase after Early College students are added and because, unlike four-year colleges, community college students traditionally continue to enroll right up to the first day or in the first few weeks of classes.
This is only the second academic year with the Free College Scholarship, which was proposed by Governor Janet Mills in early 2022 and enacted by the Legislature a few months later. In July, the scholarship was extended to the Classes of 2024-25 under the budget passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Mills. Details about the scholarship are here.
“The scholarship has been very successful in attracting people who didn’t go right off to college in 2020 and 2021. We’ve also seen a big increase in adult learners who earned their Hi-SET during the qualifying years,” 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.”