Lucy Hamilton is a student at Springfield College in Massachusetts and a Portland High alumna. She is enrolling at Southern Maine Community College this semester rather than return to campus because of the coronavirus. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Lucy Hamilton was on a leave of absence last semester from Springfield College, where she had been hoping to major in athletic training but decided to take the semester off after she didn’t get into the program.

She enrolled at a different college but it didn’t feel like the right fit. Then the coronavirus hit and the 19-year-old Portland High School alum decided to extend her leave of absence and stay at her parents’ house.

Although she’s decided she ultimately does want to return to Springfield, for now Hamilton has enrolled at Southern Maine Community College, where she is planning on taking general education classes this fall.

“It was just cheaper and easier to still explore my options while not spending too much money and also being able to work and have a little more freedom socially, especially because Maine is on the lower side of cases and Massachusetts is on the higher side,” Hamilton said. “It just made sense to stay here rather than risk going on campus and having an outbreak.”

Hamilton is among a number of Maine students who are opting to enroll at their local community college rather than a four-year school or university this fall because of the coronavirus. With many four-year schools and universities offering students online classes or a mix of online and in-person classes for the fall, some students said they didn’t think the quality of classes would differ at their community college.

Some also said the opportunity to stay home for health and safety reasons rather than move on-campus was a motivating factor, as was the opportunity to save money.

Enrollment numbers for Maine’s community colleges won’t be finalized for several weeks, so the system doesn’t have an accurate picture yet of exactly how many students might be forgoing on-campus or out-of-state experiences in favor of community college.

Maine Community College System President David Daigler said the system is seeing an increase in students from the spring staying enrolled for the fall. And while some students who might normally enroll in community college or higher education are deferring or taking time off altogether, Daigler said there is anecdotal evidence to suggest some are opting for community college as a safer and more affordable option.

“We’re seeing a lot of confusion among students, a lot of very mixed emotion,” Daigler said. “There’s a lot of concern about their health, about their parents’ health and a lot of concern about what the environment looks like in a residential setting.”

Around the country, colleges and universities have had to backtrack on reopening plans as cases of the coronavirus have arisen on campuses like Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Colleges have done a lot of planning to try and create safe spaces,” Daigler said. “They’ve done a lot of work yet it’s a really challenging thing. When you ask about students, they’re asking, ‘How will this work for me? I have to sit in a dorm room and take my courses in Zoom classes?’ I can fully understand why students would turn to community college and do so nationally.”

Olivia Ouellette is a recent graduate of Poland Regional High School. She was planning to enroll at Thomas College, but changed her plans due to COVID-19 and is instead taking classes at Central Maine Community College and living at home. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Olivia Ouellette, a 2020 graduate of Poland Regional High School, had been planning on studying business at Thomas College this fall but decided instead to enroll at Central Maine Community College after some of the classes she wanted to take at Thomas switched to online.

“I could be spending $20,000 a year or like $3,500 for four classes,” said Ouellette, 18. “At Thomas it was strictly towards my major but I don’t really know what I want to do right now. Going to community college I can figure it out at the same time while spending less money and getting classes done.”

The average tuition and fees for a two-year associate degree from Maine community colleges is $3,700 per year for in-state students. The average in-state tuition and mandatory fees at Maine’s four-year universities is $9,324.

For private four-year institutions, the average tuition and fees is around $31,875, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That does not include room and board.

While many students miss the social aspect of college and the opportunity to learn from and interact with peers, Ouellette said she doesn’t feel like she’ll be missing out on too much, especially since campuses will look different with all the restrictions necessitated by the virus.

“It won’t be the same, even if you are sitting in your dorm with other people,” Ouellette said. “I’d rather just save money and be at home and get the same classes done.”

Levi Lambert poses for a portrait at his home in North Berwick. Lambert was accepted into University of Maine in Orono, but he is deferring for a year to take classes at York County Community College to save money and not have to worry about the coronavirus on campus. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In North Berwick, Levi Lambert was accepted into the University of Maine in Orono but decided over the summer to defer for a year and enroll in York County Community College “to avoid all the craziness that’s going on.”

“Being around a bunch of different people that I don’t know where they’ve been, that just increases my chances of becoming sick,” said Lambert, a 2020 graduate of Noble High School. “I figured it would just be best to wait it out for a year.”

About 70 percent of programming across Maine’s community college system will be online this fall and about 30 percent face-to-face. That’s almost completely the opposite of pre-COVID programming, when about 70 percent of instruction was in-person, Daigler said. In addition, all general education classes are online this fall.

Daigler said the system has made a commitment to improving online learning this fall, but he acknowledged there are some students who won’t be pursuing higher education at all because they are apprehensive about taking classes remotely.

“We don’t have a lot of students deciding to go elsewhere,” he said. “We do have a lot deciding to come to us instead of – fill in the blank. Depending on how bad things get out there we could see students saying, ‘I’m not going to do any of this.’ It’s getting very hard to predict.”

Hamilton, the Portland student, said she doesn’t learn well online, but her mother told her she should try and take some classes this fall. She got her courses pre-approved by Springfield so it shouldn’t be a problem to transfer the credits.

“Even if I fail them, this way it’s not $20,000 that I’m failing classes for; it’s a little more affordable,” Hamilton said.

Students said while living at home with parents and siblings isn’t exactly the college social experience, they’re also using the time to work and create their own safer social opportunities.

Ouellette, a cross-country runner, was planning on running at Thomas but said a lot of former high school teammates are also going to Central Maine Community College. “They’re not really doing sports anywhere at colleges,” Ouellette said. “Now going to CM, I can run with the same people I used to run with, which is really cool, and obviously meet new people too.”

She’s also looking forward to spending time at her family’s camp this winter and snowmobiling while having the freedom to take classes from anywhere.

“Now I’ll be able to just pick up my laptop and bring it with me,” Ouellette said.

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