Students at Southern Maine Community College were happy to hear Friday that Gov. Janet Mills is proposing two years of free community college tuition, but most said it will take some time to assess the personal impact of the proposal.

During her annual address to the Legislature on Thursday, Mills proposed that the state cover tuition and fees for two-year associates’ degrees or one-year certification programs in the Maine Community College System. The program is aimed at the high school graduating classes of 2020-2023 – Mills said she wants it to benefit those students most affected by the pandemic.

Myriah Poulin leaves the Campus Center at Southern Maine Community College on Friday. Poulin said she hadn’t heard about Gov. Janet Mills’ proposal to make community college free for Maine high school graduates, but said it was good news. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“That would be great,” said Myles Brown of Deer Isle, who is attending SMCC to get an electrical engineering degree and then, he hopes, start his own company as an electrician.

Southern Maine Community College liberal studies student Grace Marshall said she receives scholarships, so she wasn’t sure how Gov. Janet Mills’ proposal to make community college free for Maine high school graduates would apply to students like her, but added that it was a good thing. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Brown, a point guard on the SMCC basketball team, said he works full time and has some scholarships that help cover his college costs. But no longer having to pay tuition would ease financial stresses as he moves into the second year of his program in the fall, he said.

Grace Marshall, who is majoring in liberal studies with a concentration in art, also is uncertain of the impact of Mills’ plan on her college costs.

But Marshall worries that if a community college education becomes free – at least for some students – it could devalue it.

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“It’s a relatively good thing,” she said of Mills’ plan, “but when something is free, I’m always wary.”

Mills’ plan got a warm reception Friday at Central Maine Community College in Auburn, where Myah Nicholas of Lewiston called it both “a great idea” and “a great opportunity” for students who might otherwise go straight from high school to a job.

Community college leaders also praised the plan, which Mills touted during her visit to CMCC.

“It will have a really positive impact not only on this campus, but systemwide,” said William Cassidy, who chairs the board of the Maine Community College System.

But not everyone supports the idea, which requires legislative approval.

The executive director of the Maine Republican Party, Jason Savage, said Friday that “given that Janet Mills’ school lockdowns deeply hurt students and parents’ mental, emotional and financial health, any of her election-year proposals funded by federal funny money should be met with extreme skepticism.”

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Sarah Poli, a student from Benton, said the governor’s proposal would help many students who are struggling and who need the financial help to make it possible to earn their degrees or certification.

Maine Community College President David Daigler said the pandemic has driven many low-income students out of the system as they’ve struggled financially and with other hardships related to COVID-19. Offering to make it free for them to return, he said, will likely spur some to come back.

He anticipates about 8,000 young people will take up the offer if the Legislature backs the plan.

In the fall, Maine’s community colleges enrolled more than 15,000 students statewide, but only a third of them attend full-time.

And many said their educations have been disrupted by the pandemic, forcing them to take some courses online. As a result, some had to extend their college enrollments to complete degree or certification programs.

Christian Dubuc estimates that he will have $12,000 in debt by the time he’s done at SMCC, where he is majoring in human services and hopes to become a therapist or a substance use counselor. He expects it will take him about eight years to pay back that debt, meaning he will likely be struggling financially when he starts his career.

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Southern Maine Community College human services student Christian Dubuc said he is going to graduate with $12,000 in student debt, so Gov. Janet Mills’ proposal to provide free tuition to community college students would be welcome news for students like him. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

If the state covers some of that tuition, it would ease that crunch, Dubuc said.

“Maybe I could finally pay off my car,” he said.

Scott Coburn, who moved to Maine from Pennsylvania to study electrical engineering at SMCC, said he would appreciate any help that makes college more affordable for him and other students.

“This is one of the most affordable places, but it’s still a bundle,” he said.

Mills and Daigler said students who come to Maine’s community colleges from other states may qualify for free tuition if they indicate they will stay in the Pine Tree State.

 

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