Will Maine Join the Free Community College Movement?

Gov. Janet Mills' $20 million plan aims to address the state's workforce needs by covering costs for students who graduate high school from 2020-2023.

February 18, 2022 · Updated on February 18, 2022

Edited by Alex Pasquariello
Will Maine Join the Free Community College Movement?
Higher Ed Policy
Photo by Portland Press Herald / Contributor / Portland Press Herald / Getty Images

  • The $20 million plan is in the governor's supplemental budget proposal.
  • Out-of-state students may benefit if they commit to living and working in Maine.
  • Maine is one of only 16 states that had not taken any steps toward free community college.

Maine may soon be the latest state to enact free community college — albeit for a limited population of students.

Gov. Janet Mills in her Feb. 10 State of the State address announced a $20 million plan to provide free community college to Maine students who graduate high school between 2020 and 2023. The funds will be included in the supplemental budget proposal expected to get a vote in the state legislature by mid-April.

In addition to the four-year window for eligibility, graduates who take part in the program must also qualify for in-state tuition or commit to living and working in Maine after graduation, according to a statement from Mills.

Those fitting the criteria will be able to attain a one-year certificate or two-year associate degree from any of the state's seven community colleges. Those schools enrolled just over 15,000 students in fall 2021, according to the system's data. The average cost of tuition and fees for one year of full-time study is approximately $3,700.

The governor estimated that funds will make their way to approximately 8,000 students through the program.

Students already enrolled in a community college may apply under this plan to cover their second year of schooling.

Maine Community College System President David Daigler lauded the governor's plan as a strong incentive to convince recent graduates to get a degree.

"You've given those students a new opportunity, a new start," Daigler said to Mills, according to NBC News. "They can take down the barrier of tuition [and] don't have to worry about incurring debt."

Mills, a Democrat who took office in 2019 and previously served as Maine's attorney general, stressed the plan's goal was to help students obtain the skills and credentials they need to solve Maine's biggest workforce challenges.

"Community college is a powerful tool and my proposal will ensure that high school students most impacted by the pandemic have the opportunity to earn a free college education and enter Maine's workforce with a reliable, good-paying, and in-demand job," she said in a statement.

According to data from Maine's Center for Workforce Research and Information, Maine's employment-to-population ratio (57.3% as of December) is slightly below the national average (59.9%). Both rates are below pre-pandemic rates, although they've climbed significantly since the summer of 2020.

Enrollment at the state's community colleges is also below pre-pandemic levels. The system's schools had 16,300 students enrolled in September 2019, compared to 15,000 in fall 2021.

While Mills' community college plan is temporary and limited in who can benefit from it, she added that she looks forward to seeing data about how impactful the program is once enacted.

"I'd love to get a good uptake, that we get people trained up with one-year certificates or two-year degrees and get them into the workforce," Mills said.

President Joe Biden cut tuition-free community college from his Build Back Better plan late last year. Morley Winograd, president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, previously told BestCollegesthat the cut means states will likely take up the issue without federal action.

He added that Mills' proposal is a good first step toward what he hopes will one day become a permanent program.

"The experience of other states who have funded an initial tuition-free community college program demonstrates that once the program is put in place, funding for future years is readily achieved based on the program's success in improving the workforce and its popularity with students and their families," Winograd said.

According to the Campaign for Free College Tuition, Maine was one of only 16 states before the governor's proposal that had not taken any steps toward free community college. Eighteen states have a full-tuition program already in place.