Lahana Palencia was like many graduating high school students: planning to go to college, not sure what she wanted to study and scared of racking up a lot of student debt while she figured it all out.

“I graduated from (Pittsfield) high school an honors student. But I was like, I don’t know what I want to do. So I took a year off,” she said. She spent a year in Portland, working and pursuing her interest in art, before deciding to go back to college.

“I was going to go to University of Southern Maine, I was accepted and everything,” Palencia said. But she still wasn’t sure what she wanted to study and realized she could go those “first two years” of liberal studies at USM, or at a community college.

The price tag made the difference, she said.

“It was definitely a financial decision,” said Palencia, now a 20-year-old freshman liberal studies major at Southern Maine Community College. Two grants pay all her costs, so going to school there is free. Tuition and fees at USM come to about $9,000 a year.

Palencia still has bills, from living expenses to paying for books, so she works two jobs while attending SMCC. She has a cleaning job in downtown Portland buildings, and buses tables at Bintliff’s American Cafe.

“I don’t like owing money at all,” Palencia said. Keeping her debt low now will pay off later, particularly since she intends to continue her studies.

“Right now, I’m really leaning towards (attending) MECA,” the Maine College of Art. Tuition at that Portland school is about $15,000 a year.

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