HERMON, Maine — Fifteen Hermon High School students will get a head start on their college careers thanks to a pilot program unveiled Monday evening during a celebration attended by Gov. Paul LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.

A joint venture of Hermon High, United Technologies Center, Eastern Maine Community College and the University of Maine, the Bridge Year Program will enable the Hermon High students to earn up to 29.5 college credits — at a significant cost savings — during their junior and senior years and summer vacations. Participants would complete their degree programs during the year after graduating high school.

LePage called the pilot program both “innovative” and “timely.”

“When we talk about education, it’s not just a high priority in our administration, it’s about the kids,” he said. “And that’s where I run afoul lately with some of the [state’s] superintendents —- not the one that’s here [Hermon Superintendent Patricia Duran] because she is one of the few innovators.”

“This is what it’s all about — exposing our kids to more opportunities,” LePage said, thanking the Bridge Year Program’s volunteer steering committee members for their time and work, “for being innovative, allowing our children to have better than we’ve had for a long time here in the state of Maine. You have broken down the barrier of status quo.”

“To the parents here, this is one way of lowering the cost of education for your child going forward,” he later added. “This is very, very critical because we are one of the highest cost education systems in the country. This is going to be of great benefit to all our kids. They’ll get … two years [of college credits] without having to have a lot of debt on their backs.”

The per credit cost for Bridge Year students is approximately $20 versus the $117 per credit hour cost for traditional EMCC students, according to a brochure handed out at Monday’s celebration.

Hermon Superintendent Patricia Duran said the program, though now only being offered in Hermon, could be developed in other communities.

“We’re the pilot but I don’t see why other schools couldn’t do the same thing with their local community colleges and universities. It takes some work, some collaboration, some give and take. I think one of our rules was we couldn’t say ‘no.’ We had to say ‘how.’”

Members of the inaugural class will be pursuing a range of degrees, including culinary arts, public safety, business management and health occupations.

“As of July 1, they are students at Hermon [High], they are students at UTC and they are students at EMCC,” Fred Woodman, UTC director and a member of the Bridge Year steering committee, said. “At that time, they will automatically become [enrolled in] all three of those schools.”

“But you realize that three years from tonight, they will be graduated from high school, they will have a marketable skill and they’ll have their associate’s degree, if they stay in the program,” Woodman said.

The state’s education commissioner said he would like to see similar opportunities offered in other Maine schools.

“It really was led by the community here,” he said. “This is not a solution that came from Augusta. … These are folks who gave up their time, their own time, weekends and evenings to sit around and figure out how to do something that really has never been done in this state. This is almost unprecedented — the collaboration between all of these levels figuring out how to get this done was remarkable and it is going to be a model for the state.”