A new program that provides free tuition for recent high school graduates has helped boost fall enrollment by 12 percent at Maine’s seven community colleges.

Enrollment figures released Friday show fall enrollment as of Aug. 25 was 12,765, compared to 11,359 last year at the same time. Of this year’s fall enrollment, 5,399 of the students – 42 percent – qualify for the free community college scholarships approved by the Legislature earlier this year.

Applications began to pour in to community colleges once the program was approved in April and by August, community colleges had seen an 11 percent increase in applications from new students over last year.

“This increase in enrollment shows how important the promise of a great education is to Maine residents,” said David Daigler, president of the Maine Community College System. “Getting the skills needed for jobs in today’s economy is close at hand, affordable, and vitally important to landing a great job with good pay,” 

The number of students enrolled for the fall right now could grow even more, said Daigler, as some students work in Maine’s hospitality industry and might be enrolling later. The final tally for fall enrollments will be made Oct. 15, he said.

The free college program pays tuition and fees for full-time community college students who graduate from high school or pass an equivalency exam from 2020 through 2023. The program is aimed at helping students who were affected by the pandemic, which closed colleges and made many students postpone their plans, Daigler said.

The Legislature allocated $20 million for the initiative in the $1.2 billion supplemental budget it passed in April. The state said it expects the program to supplement or fully pay community college tuition and other mandatory fees for 8,000 students.

For the 2021-22 school year, tuition to attend one of Maine’s seven community colleges was $2,880 per year for in-state students and $5,760 for out-of-state students. But that doesn’t include the cost of fees, books, or room and board, which this past year ranged from $7,600 to $12,000 for both in-state and out-of-state students. 

The fall semester begins Monday at five of the state’s seven community colleges: Central Maine Community College in Auburn, Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, and York County Community College in Wells. Washington County Community College in Calais will start Aug. 31, and Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield starts Sept. 6.

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