The Harold Alfond Foundation has paid off $685,000 in student loan debt for 20 Mainers, the first round of payments in a four-year program that will eliminate $5 million in debt for state residents who are working for a Maine-based business in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field.

One recipient, Alec Mackenzie, said the grant will free up money to possibly hire more people at his 10-year-old mechanical engineering firm in Portland.

“The Alfond Leaders program drastically shifts the calculus of our family’s planning. It eases the student loan debt we have and gives us confidence that we can make our lives here,” said Mackenzie, who studied engineering at Maine Maritime Academy and got an MBA from Babson College.

The Alfond Leaders program launched in February. It pays up to 50 percent in college loan debt – up to $60,000 – for qualified students or residents. It can be awarded to students who commit to working in Maine for at least five years in a STEM field for a Maine-based business. Candidates must submit an application, an essay, a resume and a statement of intent to live and work in Maine for 10 years, proof of employment by a Maine-based employer; and details on their student loan debt. The payments are made in two disbursements, after five and 10 years.

The 20 recipients were selected from more than 400 applicants.

“Given the very competitive applicant pool, the selection process was no easy task,” Foundation Chairman Greg Powell said. “But with this new group of outstanding professionals, and those chosen in the future, the foundation will be as pleased to help pay down their college debt as we are to have them here in Maine contributing to our economy.”

Nicholas Workman, 27, a quality engineer at New Balance in Skowhegan, was one of the first recipients. He graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute with a degree in biomedical and mechanical engineering and moved to Connecticut, working as a nuclear engineer at General Dynamics.

He was living in Connecticut with his fiancée, who is also from Maine, and the two missed their home state, so they moved back within 10 months to start a family.

“We had a strong desire to come home,” Workman said Friday.

He said it was not the best financial decision to leave Connecticut and come back to Maine, but it was best for his family. He said while he didn’t take a big pay cut to come home, it was enough to have to think about the move.

“We decided it was worth it,” he said. “Money doesn’t buy happiness, and the happiness to move back outweighed the loss financially.”

Workman, who lives in Rome, in Kennebec County, said it was a great honor to be selected for the Alfond Leaders program, especially in the first round. While he would not discuss specifics of his student debt, he said the program gives his family financial stability, and provides a way to get out from under the burden of student loans.

“It gives us hope for the future,” he said.

The foundation created the program because people with high student debt are less likely to buy homes, start a business or become entrepreneurs, Powell said.

In Maine, 63 percent of college graduates have student loan debt, with an average amount of $29,644, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, which tracks student loan debt. Nationally, aggregate student loan balances hit about $1.3 trillion at the end of 2016, an increase of about 170 percent from 2006, according to the New York Fed, which tracks household debt.

In Maine, which has 1.3 million residents, outstanding student debt totals $4.8 billion, Powell said. Many graduates leave the state for higher-paying jobs, and the workforce shortage threatens economic prosperity, he said.

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Colin Ellis contributed to this report.

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

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