SOUTH PORTLAND – As enrollment in Maine’s community colleges continues to grow, businesses and foundations are contributing millions of dollars to increase access to higher education for thousands of students who are turned away each year.

Enrollment in the Maine Community College System is up 9.6 percent over last fall, an increase of 1,576 students, according to preliminary numbers announced Thursday at Southern Maine Community College.

In the eight years since the seven institutions made the transition from technical schools to community colleges, enrollment has grown 77 percent, from 10,127 to 17,967 students.

Despite such growth, the system will turn away as many as 4,000 qualified applicants this fall — about the same number as last year — because it lacks the money, instructors and programs to accommodate them.

“We do not have the capacity to serve all those who want to enroll and who need a college education to achieve economic security,” said John Fitzsimmons, the system’s president.

The colleges with the largest enrollment growth this fall are York County Community College in Wells (up 16.3 percent, to 1,661), Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield (up 12.5 percent, to 2,584), and SMCC (up 11.4 percent, to 6,977).

Fitzsimmons noted that as the system has grown, the state’s share of its now $55 million budget has fallen, from 51 percent to 36 percent. Rather than pass cost increases on to students, the system has avoided tuition increases during seven of the last 10 years, he said.

To help meet its financial and enrollment challenges, the system established the Foundation for Maine’s Community Colleges in January and started a $10 million fundraising campaign.

In eight months, the campaign has raised $6.4 million and gained the support of many of Maine’s largest companies, foundations and individuals who see community colleges as critical to Maine’s economic future.

“There’s a significant gap between the current skills of our work force and the skills we’ll need to compete in a changing economy,” said former Gov. John McKernan, the campaign’s co-chairman. “The community colleges are the bridge that spans the gap. They are critical to our ability to work our way out of the current economic crisis.”

The foundation has received $1 million contributions from Leon and Lisa Gorman, the estate of Thelma Swain and an anonymous donor, according to system officials. L.L. Bean, the Hannaford Charitable Foundation and Poland Spring/Nestl?aters North America each donated $500,000, and S. Donald Sussman gave $250,000.

These donors each gave $100,000 or more: the Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation, Bangor Savings Bank, The Betterment Fund, Cianbro, Cross Insurance, General Dynamics/Bath Iron Works, Idexx Laboratories, KeyBank, Maine Medical Center, McKernan and his wife, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, Elaine Rosen and the TD Charitable Foundation.

“This is the most amazing assembly of business leaders in support of anything in the last few years,” said Jonathan Ayers, president and CEO of Idexx. “Many of our 1,700 employees are community college graduates.”

Money raised in the campaign will be used for instructional equipment and technology, new and expanded academic programs, capital upgrades at each college, and student support.

Students at Thursday’s news conference said they were attracted to SMCC because its programs are inexpensive and will prepare them for better jobs in a difficult economy. For a Maine resident, tuition is $3,300 for a two-year degree, at $84 per credit hour. About 31 percent of SMCC students have degrees from other schools and are retraining for new careers, Fitzsimmons said.

“I was out of work and I knew it was a great time to go back to school,” said Rick Ross, 52, of Waterville, who will soon have an associate’s degree in heating and air conditioning technology. “I wanted to go into a field that I could eventually work for myself and even continue working part time after I retire.”

Amanda Moors, 20, of South Portland, is a liberal studies major with a concentration in science. She plans to go on to study dental hygiene at the University of New England or University College of Bangor.

“I have a lot of flexibility here in choosing courses that will transfer,” Moors said. “Plus, I liked the location of the campus on the water.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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