Maine’s community colleges are engines of growth and opportunity

September 29, 2023

Maine’s motto, Dirigo, means to lead. But two decades ago, Maine lagged the nation in one critical area: access to low-cost community college. In fact, until Maine’s technical colleges transitioned to community colleges in 2003, Maine was one of only three states in the nation that lacked a system of public, two-year community colleges.

At the same time that the state’s economy was undergoing dramatic change, shedding manufacturing and natural resource-based jobs at an alarming rate, too few Mainers had access to the education they needed to compete for the emerging jobs. In the early 2000s, only a third of Maine adults had a college degree. And only 50 percent of high school graduates were going to college.

The case for community colleges was strong.

For many Mainers — especially those place-bound by geography, work or family commitments — local, affordable access to higher education could provide them with the opportunity to begin a degree and acquire the education essential for building a more prosperous life. For Maine’s employers, community colleges across the state could mean a more highly skilled and competitive workforce.

When Gov. John Baldacci proposed legislation in the spring of 2003 to create comprehensive community colleges, 117 members of the 121st Legislature, Democrats and Republicans, signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.

By 2010, enrollment in the new Maine Community College System had increased 76 percent, making it one of the fastest growing systems of higher education in the nation. That year, convinced of the enormous potential of the colleges and their need for greater private sector support, Leon and Lisa Gorman led the effort to create a statewide foundation, one that has been chaired by Gov. John McKernan since its inception. To date, The Foundation for Maine’s Community Colleges has raised over $63 million in support of the colleges’ programs, infrastructure and scholarships.

In just 20 years, Maine’s community colleges have grown into the powerhouse its backers imagined.

The colleges have awarded more than 45,000 credentials, the vast majority of them in occupational programs tied directly to the workforce needs of Maine employers.

The percentage of Mainers with a college degree has increased from 33 percent to 48 percent.

The seven colleges have opened the door to higher education to tens of thousands of Mainers by maintaining the lowest tuition in New England.

With the University of Maine System, the community college system has developed seamless pathways that enable students to transfer easily between the two systems as they pursue four-year degrees. Today, more community college students (about 600 each year) transfer into the university system than from any other type of post-secondary institution.

The colleges have proved remarkably adept at responding to the state’s changing needs:

New offerings in wind power technology, e-car repair, water treatment and other areas are providing skilled workers to critical areas of the economy.

With an investment of $60 million from the Harold Alfond Foundation, state and federal recovery funds, and the private sector, the Maine Community College System has established the Alfond Center for the Advancement of Maine’s Workforce which over four years will upgrade the skills of 24,000 front-line Maine workers.

Under Gov. Janet Mills’ leadership and with the support of the Legislature, the Maine Community College System is providing free tuition to recent high school graduates affected by the pandemic and in the process is attracting many students who would have otherwise believed college to be out of reach.

The system’s Remote Work for ME initiative is providing occupational training to rural Mainers to deliver the skills needed in high-demand fields that increasingly rely on remote workers.

Twenty years ago, the case was made for community colleges. Today, we are proud to celebrate the powerful engines of growth and opportunity they have become, for Mainers and their families, for Maine businesses in need of skilled workers, and for a stronger state economy.

John Baldacci served as Maine’s governor from 2003 to 2011. He led the effort to establish Maine’s community college system in 2003. John McKernan served as Maine’s governor from 1987 to 1995. He served as chair of The Foundation for Maine’s Community Colleges since its inception in 2010.