AUGUSTA – Ten years ago, Maine did not have a community college system, and the state’s technical colleges served 8,900 students a year.

Over the past difficult decade in which both the public and private sectors in Maine have been forced to hunker down and rein in their expectations, Maine’s seven community colleges have more than doubled in size to 18,000 students.

We celebrate those students every year at this time. Those of us who have the honor to work with them marvel at their tenacity and their willingness to work hard for a brighter future.

One of those outstanding students, Elizabeth Bickford, summed up these strengths in her remarks at Kennebec Valley Community College’s graduation this spring:

“No two of us have traveled the exact same path to reach our goal of a college education,” she said. “However, we do share one similarity: We are champions. Whether we started out as a nontraditional student, someone fresh out of high school, or perhaps a displaced worker, we’ve all had our ups and downs. Who we are today is a result of how we responded to both the misfortunes and opportunities life has offered.”

As Elizabeth suggests, the path to and through college can be a difficult one for our students. The majority work more than 20 hours a week while attending school. Many have family responsibilities and are the sole provider.

Even though our colleges offer the lowest college tuition in New England, 76 percent of full-time students receive financial aid. As a result, many struggle from semester to semester to make ends meet. These challenges mean that it can take a long time to cross the stage to receive a degree.

So every year, as I shake the hands of our newest graduates, I am filled with pride at all they have accomplished and all they have to offer our state. This year I am doubly proud, because the very hard work of our students and of our faculty and staff is clearly paying off.

In less than a decade, the promise of Maine’s community colleges is being fulfilled. The enormous surge in enrollment that we have seen over the past 10 years is now resulting in significant growth in the number of Maine people with a college degree. This spring, nearly 3,000 students graduated from a Maine community college, an increase of more than 500 students over 2010.

They include Rachel Champoux, a 16-year-old who will enroll at the University of Southern Maine in the fall and then transfer to the Rochester Institute of Technology to complete a four-year degree.

And they include an 83-year-old machinist, Robert Witham, who lost his job three years ago and returned to school to learn computerized numerical control machining.

Their fellow graduates are now nurses, firefighters, Web designers, chefs and accountants. A good number of them will transfer on to continue their education.

Many more will go to work, and if past classes are any indication, over 90 percent who enter the work force will do so in Maine, where they will contribute in significant ways to their families, their communities, and the state’s economy.

During a period when skilled workers are expected to be the fuel that will propel the country’s economy, the importance of an increased number of college graduates in a state the size of Maine cannot be overstated.

Fifty-nine percent of all new jobs in Maine are expected to require post-secondary education by 2018. That means Maine will need 136,000 workers with a two-year degree to fill jobs that require technical literacy and strong communications skills.

But only 75,000 adults in this state hold an associate degree. In fact, only 37 percent of our citizens hold a college degree of any kind, compared to 46 percent in the rest of New England. That’s a primary reason why Maine has the lowest per capita income in New England.

Clearly, Maine people have gotten the message. In the past eight years, enrollment in our colleges has grown 76 percent, and that does not include 5,300 applicants who were turned away last fall because we lacked the capacity to serve them.

This graduation season, the state’s commitment to providing affordable access to higher education is beginning to pay off in significant and long-lasting ways.

Each year, as more and more Maine people walk across the stage to receive a college degree, our state is one giant step closer to building a vibrant economy and to realizing the full potential of all her people.

– Special to the Telegram