Maxine Webb laughs while talking with friends at the Campus Center at Southern Maine Community College on Friday. Webb, currently a high school senior, is attending SMCC in the fall to study education. She plans on transferring to a four-year college after her two years at SMCC and said that the free tuition was a big factor in her decision to attend a community college. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Graduate from high school. Go straight to a four-year college. That had long been Maxine Webb’s plan.

But when she heard that she could go to community college for free, that changed.

Webb, a 17-year-old first-generation college student, has decided to go to Southern Maine Community College in South Portland for her first two years of higher education. After that, she plans to transfer to a four-year school in the University of Maine System, likely to UMaine Farmington for its education program. She wants to become a high school health teacher.

“The financial part of going to college is going to fall on me,” said Webb, who is supporting herself through school. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life trying to pay off student debt on a teachers salary, so taking advantage of free community college makes a lot of sense.”

It’s not clear how many students are taking the same path as a way to cut the cost of their college education. But, while Gov. Janet Mills’ free community college program is bringing more students into the two-year programs, it’s also pulling some students away from Maine’s four-year universities.

Maine Community College System enrollment has skyrocketed because of the free tuition program, while the University of Maine System’s annual decline in enrollment has accelerated at the same time. And some say the state can’t afford to put its own university system at a competitive disadvantage.


A bill brought forward by Sen. Mike Tipping, D-Orono, would provide tuition assistance to Maine residents who want to attend schools within the state’s university system similar to the tuition assistance available to state community college students. The intent of the bill, Tipping said, is to make the UMaine System an attractive option compared with free community college and boost investment in the system in order to keep the state’s universities strong, draw more students to the state and ultimately build and maintain a strong Maine workforce and economy.

“Our state universities hold a huge amount of promise,” Tipping said. “Investing in them is not just investment in the next generation of students and teachers but in the next industry leaders. Supporting our universities is how we will spur economic growth in Maine.”

Tipping estimates that his bill, LD512, would cost the state between $20 million and $46 million over the two-year period. It would cut tuition at UMaine System schools in half for students who get a high school diploma between 2023 and 2025, live in Maine at the time of enrollment, pursue a degree full time starting between the fall of 2023 and 2025 and maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA for their sophomore through senior years.

And the bill would not just provide aid to new high school graduates.

It would also cover 50% of tuition for one year for Maine residents of at least five years who have a partially completed degree, are at most 30 credit hours – around 10 classes – away from finishing their degree and enroll in a system school between fall 2023 and spring 2025. This is crucial, Tipping said, because students who have completed part of a degree may be bogged down with student debt without the credentials that could help them earn a higher wage and pay it off.

Tipping’s bill is scheduled to be discussed during a public hearing Monday in front of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.


The debate comes at a fraught time for higher education, and especially public higher education. In Maine and around the nation, enrollment in undergraduate institutions has been declining for years, a trend that was exacerbated by the pandemic and the strong job market. It’s a troubling trend for state policymakers and Maine employers because a strong university system can help support a strong economy and vibrant state.

Over the last five years, undergraduate enrollment in UMaine schools has decreased by 12%, leaving a system that relies significantly on student tuition in a tenuous financial situation. In the fall of 2018, the system enrolled 22,669 undergraduate students in its seven schools. In the fall of 2022, it enrolled 20,004 undergraduates.

The most precipitous drop occurred between fall of 2021 and fall of 2022, when enrollment dropped by 5.5%. In the four years prior, enrollment dropped by around 2% each year.

The Maine Community College System had been following a similar pattern, until the state started to offer free community college to students who graduated from high school during the pandemic. The state paid out $5.35 million to cover tuition costs for 5,574 eligible community college students in the fall semester of 2022.

While some of those students would have enrolled without the program, it’s clear that the offer brought in many others. Between fall 2018 and fall 2021, enrollment declined 10%, from 16,662 students to 15,004, but system enrollment shot back up to 16,791 students in fall 2022.

And almost twice the number of students admitted to both the UMaine System and the Maine community college system opted for community college in 2022, the first year of the initiative, compared with 2021.


Observers say those numbers indicate that Maine’s free community college program is intensifying enrollment declines at UMaine System schools.

As enrollments trended downward at public universities in the state and the nation, the Maine Community College System had been following a similar pattern, until the state started to offer free community college to students who graduated from high school during the pandemic. The state paid out $5.35 million to cover tuition costs for 5,574 eligible community college students in the fall semester of 2022. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

While noting his organization’s support for free community college, John Kosinski, government relations director for the Maine Education Association, said he believes the increase in enrollment at the community college system may have come at a cost to the UMaine System. The association represents educators in the state university system and the community college system.

“It has led to downstream impacts that must be considered,” he said at a February budget meeting.

Kosinski said he thinks Tipping’s bill could help reverse some of those downstream impacts of free community college and boost UMaine System enrollment.

“We’d like to make sure the state is offering comparable solutions to those students who want to attend four-year public higher education institutions,” he said. “We just would like to see the doors of higher education open to more families, and we think this would do just that and make sure we have a thriving UMaine System going forward.”

Tipping, the sponsor of the bill, said further supporting the UMaine System will help not only students, but also the entire economy as the system’s schools help students set down roots in Maine and prepare them for well-paying jobs in a wide swath of industries.


Since Mills took office in 2019, the state has increased the UMaine System’s budget by 21%, almost $45 million. She has suggested an 8.5% increase in higher education spending in her proposed budget.

Kosinski applauded this suggested increase, but said it’s not enough, noting that state support has not kept up with recent spikes in inflation.

“Even with this increase, we can still expect our public higher education systems to struggle with tight budgets and tough choices,” Kosinski said.

That’s a problem, some say, because it means the UMaine System could have to continue to cut budgets, faculty positions and programs in order to break even, ultimately weakening the university system that brings and keeps students in Maine.

Others agree and say the passage of LD512, which would give a very significant boost in funding to the UMaine System, would change that.

University of Maine System Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Ryan Low said the state needs to send a message to students and families that a four-year degree is within reach.


“Any measures that help students follow their education path while lightening their financial burden is a positive and will, we believe, help reverse declines in enrollment,” he said.

Although there is no precise price tag on Tipping’s bill yet, those who support it insist it would pay for itself.

“Increasing the number of students who come to our universities is a good thing for our system, and more educated and skilled workers with less student debt is a great thing for the state’s economy and communities,” Low said.

Gov. Mills has not taken a public position on the bill.

A spokesperson for Mills said her administration will review the proposal and that she is “always interested in ideas to make higher education more affordable for more Maine students so that they are able to pursue their educational interests and learn skills needed to take good-paying jobs, have rewarding careers and strengthen our economy.”

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