Free Maine community college tuition program must be made permanent

September 29, 2023

Meeting with high school sophomores recently, I had to equivocate about the availability of free college; nobody is sure they’ll have the option. That’s a problem.

Over the summer, we got the amazing news that Maine’s groundbreaking initiative providing Maine high school graduates access to a tuition-free associate degree was extended to the classes of 2024 and 2025. For those of you playing along at home, that means grads from 2020-2025 are eligible. It is truly a transformational program that has attracted national attention from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Those of us in the trenches are pushing hard for this to become a permanent fixture in Maine statute, so that parents can send their kiddo off to pre-K assured that their education is covered through grade 14.

The program simply will not meet its potential if it is subject to gubernatorial shifts or legislative reprioritization.

My high school counseling colleagues and I have talked about community colleges more in the past year and a half than perhaps the previous (sometimes considerable) years in the field combined.

Kids who never saw themselves as “college material” are legitimately going to college. Undecided students have a viable way forward: “I don’t know what I want to do, but I am going to community college to figure it out.” First-generation kids/families are finally able to consider being the first to pursue education after high school because they know it won’t be a money pit that leads to financial ruin. “Four-year college kids” who genuinely have no interest in a four-year college program now have cover to make the decision that is best for them without undue outside influence. And financially savvy kids are taking advantage of 2+2 transfer programs to cut costs, therefore amassing less student loan debt.

Maine has seven community colleges, which run literally the length of Maine, starting at York County Community College in Wells and continuing up to Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle. The many and varied programs of study are simply mind-boggling; there truly is something for everyone. Students can even begin taking college courses – for free! – during high school.

One of the best hacks in higher education is the 2+2 model, allowing students to earn an associate degree and then transfer seamlessly to a program at a four-year college to continue on to a bachelor’s degree. Each Maine Community College System college has transfer agreements with four-year colleges that make transferring simple and straightforward.

There is also a rapidly expanding workforce development initiative at the colleges, courtesy of Maine’s favorite philanthropist, Harold Alfond. These programs take less than a year to train participants in a specific skill set to do a specific job. Cost is typically covered by a grant; in other words, also free.

All of which make it possible for Maine kids to stay in Maine for education after high school and, often, to choose to remain in Maine once educated. It is a win-win for the long-term viability of Maine and the Mainers who call it home. And you might just be able to get a skilled tradesperson to your house without a months-long wait.

We need to write this program into statute permanently. I met with some sophomores recently and had to equivocate about the availability of free college; they’re starting to think about post-high school plans and – as of right now – there is no assurance that the scholarship program will be an option for them. That is a problem.

The present transient nature of the program is an aspiration killer. Hardscrabble Maine families don’t willingly take on debt. Period. Full stop. If this program may or may not be available, would-be first generation students may or may not have their family’s support to go to college. Often, this decision is made during middle school or even earlier. Once abandoned, these hopes and dreams are rarely revisited; the die has been cast.

Maine families need to be able to count on this program all the way through their kids’ education.

Piet Lammert is a long-time (25-plus years) Maine public high school counselor and relatively new (two-plus years) independent educational consultant. His college consulting business, DiriGo! College Consulting, serves Maine students and families exclusively.