Four University of Maine system campuses say they’ll offset the cost of tuition and fees for eligible in-state students as part of an effort to increase graduation rates and reduce student debt.

Starting in the fall semester of 2018, University of Maine system campuses at Presque Isle, Fort Kent, Augusta and Machias will build financial aid plans for any first-year students who qualify for a federal Pell grant to cover the cost of tuition and fees that aren’t already covered by the Pell grant.

The hope is that this offer, conceived at the University of Maine at Presque Isle before spreading to the other campuses, will draw more Maine first-year students to the system’s smaller universities. Ideally, system officials say, those students will go on to earn degrees, and stick around Maine — or even better rural Maine — to fill sorely needed roles in the workforce after they graduate.

“We’re especially challenged here in Aroostook County to get people with a postsecondary education to meet our needs and spark economic growth,” UMPI President Raymond Rice said.

Pell grants are issued to undergraduate students working on their first bachelor’s degree to help cover a portion of the cost of attending school. Unlike a loan, Pell grants don’t have to be repaid after a student graduates.

However, Pell grants have a cap and seldom cover the entire cost of going to school. How much Pell money students receive depends on their level of need, cost of attendance and how much the government calculates their family should be able to contribute.

Most students turn to student loan companies to cover what’s left over or to offset the expected family contribution — a number that is often unrealistic. As a result, students can rack up significant debt over the four — or more — years they’re in school.

Under this new program, campus financial aid departments will build a financial aid and grant package for each student to cover the gap between their Pell grant and total cost of tuition and fees through each of their four years at school.

“Students should know they have this for four years,” Rice said. “There’s no bait and switch.”

There are a few conditions. Eligible students supported through the program must commit to taking at least 30 credits per year — putting them on track to earn their four-year degree in four years — and they’ll have to maintain a 2.0 grade point average.

If they fail to meet those requirements, they’ll retain their federal Pell Grant funding, but some of the campus-based financial support might be at risk.

Students may have other costs to cover on their own. For example, they’ll have to buy books required for their classes and, if they choose to live on campus, they’ll still have to pay for room and board and a meal plan.

The four universities launching this program have the lowest annual tuition rates in the system: $6,840 per year. The highest tuition in the system is $8,580 at the flagship campus in Orono, followed closely by the University of Maine at Farmington, $8,576, and University of Southern Maine, $7,860.

At UMPI, school officials have simultaneously launched a marketing push to stress the importance of finishing a four-year degree in four years. Called Finish in 4, the campaign stresses that taking fewer than 30 credits each semester makes it unlikely that you’ll finish school on time, and that every extra year of college can cost $50,000, between the lost salary and continued college expenses.

UMaine, while it isn’t part of the free tuition program, launched a similar marketing and student advising push of its own called Think 30 in an effort to boost the number of students earning a degree on time and keeping their debts down.

If its free-tuition program proves successful, it could be expanded to more universities in the system and more Maine residents, according to UMS Chancellor James Page.

Other state university systems have similar tuition-free efforts. New York, for example, has the Excelsior Scholarship, which allows certain middle-class families to send a student or any two- or four-year state school without having to pay tuition.

The university system says the tuition and fees will be covered with existing financial aid money. UMS spokesman Dan Demeritt said funding for campus-based aid increased about $8 million in the current fiscal year, a nearly 12 percent increase over the year before. Much of that money was freed up during restructuring efforts in recent years through the One University initiative, which sought to decrease redundancy across the system.

Funding for the Maine State Grant Program, administered by the Finance Authority of Maine, also increased in 2015. Revenue generated by new students entering the system through the program will be pumped back into financial aid to help support the next crop of students, according to Rice.

The University of Maine at Augusta will offer the program at its campuses and university college centers. UMA expects to cover first-year, full-time students as well as full-time transfers and part-time students who take at least 15 credits per year. The campus is opening it up to these groups because UMA has a substantial percentage of nontraditional students.

“The demographic deck is stacked against us in Maine,” UMS board Chairman Jim Irwin said. “So we must think differently and act decisively to overcome the wave of retirements facing our industries and communities while students continue to struggle to afford the college degree many of those positions require. These campus programs represent exactly the kind of focus we need on innovation, debt reduction and workforce to achieve two of our highest priorities — student success and economic development.”

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.