Maine was slow to build a community college system. We were, in fact, one of the last states in the country to offer access to comprehensive two-year colleges.

But it turns out that community colleges were just what the state required. Since they were created a little over a decade ago, Mainers have enthusiastically embraced them, some to start their educational journey or finish a degree, others to get the skills essential to success in the workforce.

Given that the seven community colleges have so quickly become an integral part of higher education in Maine, it is easy to forget how far and how quickly they have come.

In 2003, when the state’s technical colleges transitioned to community colleges, they served 10,000 students. Today, enrollment has risen nearly 80 percent to over 18,000 students.

Over the past decade, the colleges have dramatically expanded their academic offerings, adding new technical programs to meet employer needs in computer forensics, health information technology, composite technology, wind and solar energy and more. All told, the colleges are preparing 4,000 more students each year in technical fields than they were a decade ago. And they are offering thousands more a quality, affordable pathway to a four-year degree.

Students start at a community college and go anywhere and everywhere. In one recent three-year period, Maine Community College System graduates transferred to more than 223 different colleges and universities. Forty percent of those graduates (more than 1,100) enrolled in the University of Maine System.

None of this would have been possible without the vision, creativity and drive of John Fitzsimmons, who last week announced his resignation as president of the Maine Community College System after 25 years of service to higher education in Maine. As a former commissioner of labor, he has always understood the vital importance that education plays in the economic lives of Maine people. Even more significantly, he has understood that education can transform lives, providing opportunity where it did not exist.

Because Dr. Fitzsimmons and the community colleges have been extremely focused on building a brighter future – for the students, communities and businesses they serve – and because the colleges are operating so effectively, we have been quick to join forces with them. We both firmly believe that an investment in Maine’s community colleges is the single most important investment we can make in the economic and social well-being of our citizens.

Our belief in the community college system’s importance led a group of us to create The Foundation for Maine’s Community Colleges five years ago. As the system’s budget has been stretched thin by the pressures placed on it by growing enrollments and scarce state resources, the foundation has stepped in to raise funds from the private sector. It has not been a hard sell. Our donors recognize that an investment in the colleges has the potential to pay solid dividends for generations to come.

In just five years, foundation volunteers, representing Maine’s largest employers, have raised more than $26 million. Those funds are allowing the colleges to launch new programs, buy state-of-the-art instructional equipment and fund scholarships for needy students. The foundation has been and will continue to be an instrumental partner as the colleges look to the future.

A hallmark of Dr. Fitzsimmons’ leadership is the depth and quality of the people he has attracted to lead the colleges and the system. Like him, they are innovative, forward-thinking and dedicated to improving the lives of their students and the Maine economy. The system continues to be in good hands.

As the community college system transitions to new leadership, our state leaders must remain focused on the central role the community colleges play in ensuring Maine’s economic well-being. They simply cannot sustain their important, life-changing work without a continued strong commitment from both the public and private sectors. We must make additional investments in the Maine Community College System to ensure that the colleges – and the students they serve – are able to realize their full promise and potential.

John Fitzsimmons has been the lead author of a great Maine success story. Now it’s up to all of us to help write the next chapter.