Opinion: Free community college has created a new wave of Maine students

December 28, 2023

Maine’s free community college program has helped remove inertia and fear of education costs.

Maine’s free community college was launched with bipartisan support and the stated goal of “ensuring that high school students … have the opportunity to get a tuition-free education and enter Maine’s workforce with a reliable, good-paying, and in-demand job.”

And that’s exactly what it does. It wasn’t designed to cover all costs, but rather to relieve the burden of paying tuition on top of those costs. This program is a great first step down that road for recent high school graduates. I want to make sure that important information that may have gotten lost in the Dec. 10 Press Herald article on the state’s free community college tuition program is shared (“Maine’s poorest students still face burdens, despite state’s free community college program”).

The Finance Authority of Maine, as a state college affordability agency, has witnessed how free community college has captured the attention of students who did not believe they could afford any type of education beyond high school, enabling new pathways for them to pursue. Quite simply, these students would never have looked at college were it not for the widespread nature of this program. With an average 14% increase in community college students who qualified for a Pell grant, Maine community colleges have experiencing double-digit growth in enrollment by this low-income population over the last two years – despite lingering effects of the pandemic and other headwinds facing higher education attainment.

It’s also worth noting that Maine led the nation with the largest increase of high school seniors filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid during 2023. While FAME knows that hardworking college-access professionals across the state, including our own, deserve significant credit for this increase, we also know that Maine’s free community college program helped remove inertia and fear of education costs.

Most students work hard to stitch together multiple grants and aid, not to mention working, to help pay for college and cover costs beyond tuition. This is why FAME works every day to help Maine students and families afford education and training after high school. The free community college scholarship still allows any student to bring outside scholarships to the table after their free community college scholarship has been received. This means there is an opportunity for all students to have room and board, books and supplies or other education expenses at least partially covered by scholarships. FAME shares extensive information about how to find scholarships on our website and as part of our college access outreach counseling.

Free community college is one of many programs intended to support growing Maine’s skilled workforce which also helps Maine people establish a secure personal economic future. For example, the Maine State Grant, Maine’s largest need-based grant program administered by FAME represents an annual investment of $27 million to support approximately 14,000 Maine students attending the broad array of higher education institutions in Maine, not just community college. This is no small investment and represents a steady stream of bipartisan support from the Maine Legislature, which has more than doubled the program’s funding since 2015. FAME agrees there is more that can be done for our financially disadvantaged students, and we will continue to work collaboratively with the Maine Legislature and gubernatorial administrations to address college access and affordability in Maine.

FAME is in its fifth decade of service to the state and its fourth in service of education advancement. It has always been and will remain part of our mission to explore more robust ways to support college access and affordability across the education and training spectrum. We applaud the efforts of free community college and similar programs launched by the University of Maine System, such as the Pine Tree State Pledge and the Downeast Promise Scholarship. We can all work together to get the message to students and families that there is money available to help with the cost of education and training after high school – free college programs make the collective impact of those additional resources even more meaningful.