Free college for epidemic-affected high school grades in Maine

Community College leaders in Maine are creating a wave of calls, emails and applications from potential students after launching a free community college program targeting state students who graduated from high school during the epidemic.

“We’re overwhelmed with the work right now because of this program, but it’s a wonderful job,” said Joseph Cassidy, president of Southern Maine Community College. “And people are happy to see that they are meeting students and they are taking them to the pipeline.”

He said so many students are calling, emailing and applying through the college’s website that admissions and counseling staff are struggling to keep up.

“Our people are tired and working really hard, but it’s really positive,” Cassidy said.

The program, which will take effect this summer when students apply for autumn, will cover two years of tuition at Maine Community College, with anyone scheduled to graduate or graduate from high school in 2020, 2021, 2022 or 2023, including the current community college. Students and alumni who earned a GED. The seven community colleges in the state cost an average of $ 3,700 in tuition and fees. The program will cover any costs that are not covered by state and federal financial aid or other scholarships. Participants must be a full-time student in an associate’s degree or one-year certificate program and must be in Maine at the time of enrollment to qualify.

Governor Janet Mills, who initially proposed the program, signed a supplementary state budget in April that included $ 20 million in one-time funding to create the program. Funding will be available next month.

“With the strong bipartisan support of the legislature, we are convinced that high school students’ aspirations for higher education have been affected by the epidemic and that they have access to a tuition-free education and access to Maine’s workforce with a reliable, well-paid job. – Job demands, “Mills said in a press release. An estimated 8,000 people in the state may be eligible for the program, according to the release.

Doug Ross, co-founder of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, says the statewide free college program has grown in popularity since the epidemic. Michigan Future for Frontliner, for example, has launched a free college program for people working in the face-to-face job during the epidemic and Michigan Reconnect, a similar program for older adults without a degree in 2021. He believes free college programs are expanding because industries are facing a severe labor crisis and states have more funds to start these programs because of the federal COVID-19 relief money.

The epidemic “has given some extra impetus to the education-free movement,” said Ross, who has been a partner in the Diploma Equity Project and has served as a senior adviser on prosperity under Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The combination of funding flows and the need for skilled workers “has been a kind of wind behind this movement.”

David Diegler, president of the Maine Community College System, said the epidemic was “incredibly unequal and unjust,” widening the economic disparity between low-income and high-income families nationally and statewide. He believes that state programs can help close those gaps because low-income students earn degrees and end up earning higher wages.

The state’s low-income high school graduates are increasingly taking jobs instead of going directly to college, a trend that has grown due to the epidemic, but “a student needs skills, training, education” to “get traction in this economy”. He said.

“They can go out and get a … 18-an-hour job to push coffee across the Dunkin ‘Donuts counter, but they’re not going to acquire the skills they need to move forward on their own,” Diegler said. “And the 18-year-old who decides to do it and has no education or technical skills is going to be a 28-year-old with no place to go in the economy.”

“If it opens the door and employs those students and thinks about college, it will be the best thing for Maine, the best thing for our economy,” he added.

If there is a hint of a wave of interest, that message is apparently out.

“The amount of communication we’re getting from the families of recent graduates and this year’s graduates has really, really increased,” Cassidy said. “We see a lot of students coming forward and saying, ‘You know, I’m going to work this year, I’m going to have a gap year,’ but they’ve decided on this investment from the state, they’re going to take advantage of it.”

The increase in application is a welcome change of pace for Southern Maine Community College and others that have seen a decline in enrollment. Enrollment in Southern Maine fell by at least 15 percent between the fall of 2020 and 2022.

Cassidy described the program as “an incredible opportunity for Maine’s family,” but said he hoped the program would improve enrollment.

“We’re in the business of working with great students, young and old, and among those who are here, we’re even happier,” he said.

Andrew Morang, associate dean of enrollment management at Central Maine Community College, said the number of new students enrolled and enrolled at the college has increased by about 20 percent compared to the same period last year. Demand for this specialty has grown significantly as a result of recent corporate scandals. He is hopeful that the college will soon return to the top enrollment of about 3,200 students by the fall of 2019.

“I think this free college scholarship is not a joke, it’s a shot in the arm that we need,” he said.

Diegler believes that enrolling college graduates in these high schools will have an impact on the state’s economy. Nationally, and especially in Maine, workers are growing out of the workforce at a high rate. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Maine has an average age of about 45 years, more than any other state in the country. He noted that some community college leaders and state lawmakers are focusing on funding and re-enrolling older adults who dropped out of college without a degree, which he also sees as critical, but he wants to reassure this generation of high school students whose lives have been disrupted. . Workers trained by the epidemic will not be lost from the pipeline.

“More people are coming into the workforce than out of work,” he said. “So, if we lose high school seniors and they don’t get those skills before their careers, then the whole economy loses. The sooner we can bring that 18-year-old into our classroom, the sooner we can become a productive member of their workforce. ”

He noted that failing to enroll these high school graduates could have long-term consequences for students from low-income families.

“And if they don’t get the training, they don’t get the education, they don’t get the skills that help them get out of poverty, their next generation will be stuck in the same cycle of poverty,” Diegler said.

He and other community college leaders hope the one-time tuition program will convince state lawmakers that Maine will benefit from a comprehensive and sustainable free college program.

“If it’s very successful, I think there’s a meaningful policy dialogue with the legislature,” he said. “We will have an exhibition … which we hope is worth it and that is why we should continue it.”

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