SOUTH PORTLAND – John Fitzsimmons said there were a hundred reasons to consider raising tuition for next year at Maine’s seven community colleges, but one overriding reason not to.

“Maine people cannot afford it,” said Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System, before the system’s board of trustees met Wednesday.

The trustees voted unanimously in favor of Fitzsimmons’ recommendation to freeze tuition at $2,580 per year for in-state students and $5,160 for out-of-state students beginning in the fall. It’s the eighth time in 14 years that the system has kept tuition flat.

“We’ve made a promise to be the high-quality low-cost option in higher education and we plan to keep that promise,” he said.

Kris Doody, chairwoman of the trustees, said freezing the tuition at a time of tremendous growth is an accomplishment for the staff, in the system office and at the seven campuses throughout Maine.

From 2002 to 2011, enrollment at Maine community colleges grew 83 percent, from 10,127 to 18,546.

“We’re growing because we’ve kept costs down,” Fitzsimmons said. “But we also turned away people last year, and we don’t want to turn away anyone because of cost.”

Since 2002, tuition has increased from $2,040 per year for in-state students to the current $2,580, including a 2.4 percent increase last year. Still, fees and tuition at Maine community colleges are the lowest in New England, according to the New England Board of Higher Education. In 1998, Maine had the second-highest costs in the country.

Fitzsimmons said more than 80 percent of community college students request some form of financial aid, showing that students continue to struggle to pay for their education. Three out of four students work while taking classes, and half work full time.

A recent survey by system officials showed that one in four students would consider leaving school if tuition increased even a little.

Because Maine’s community colleges are predominantly commuter schools, campuses have not had to build new housing to accommodate the enrollment spike. But Doody said it still costs more money to educate more students. And the system will lose $660,000 in state funds in the next year because of budget cuts.

“It’s a real balancing act of encouraging growth while providing quality education,” she said.

The Maine Community College System has campuses in South Portland, Auburn, Wells, Fairfield, Bangor, Presque Isle and Calais. Each offers a variety of associate degree and certificate programs.

Earlier this year, trustees of the University of Maine System voted to freeze tuition. It was the first time in 25 years that the system had not increased tuition or fees.

Unlike the Maine Community College System, the university system’s enrollment has dropped, by about 0.5 percent last year. The system raised tuition by 4.3 percent in 2011, after a 5 percent increase in 2010.

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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Twitter: @PPHEricRussell