Students and instructors work together diagnosing problems with a hybrid car battery at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland on Wednesday Dec. 15, 2021. The new class, which is the first of its kind in the state, teaches established car repair technicians how to diagnose and repair hybrid and electric vehicles. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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The Maine Community College System (MCCS) is an integral part of the ongoing efforts to build and sustain a skilled workforce here in the state. But more importantly, the system’s students have proven to be an integral part of Maine’s present and future.

Those students — and potential students — need support and encouragement, perhaps more than ever.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the steps taken to address it have taken a significant and unfair toll on students. That, along with a decent labor market, has surely played a role in the decline in student interest and enrollment in higher education. As NPR reported in January, this dip of more than 1 million college students has been acutely felt in America’s community colleges.

With that backdrop, the $20 million proposal from Gov. Janet Mills to cover two years of community college tuition for high school graduates from the classes of 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023 could do a lot of good — for students and for the state economy. The plan is expected to cover tuition for roughly 8,000 full-time community college students.

“This proposal is about our students, our workforce, our employers, and our future,” Mills said in February. “Community college is a powerful tool and my proposal will ensure that high school students most impacted by the pandemic have the opportunity to earn a free college education and enter Maine’s workforce with a reliable, good-paying, and in-demand job.”

MCCS President David Daigler met with the BDN editorial board recently to discuss the proposal. Daigler said this funding “can address those students who were most impacted by this pandemic.”

“And that impact was profound,” Daigler added. There should be little doubt about that.

We’ve noticed an interesting concern raised against this free community college proposal: That is unfair to those students who have already paid for their own education. This notion sounds an awful lot to us like, “I suffered, so other people must suffer too,” which doesn’t seem like a great way to approach public policy or our fellow citizens. But Daigler had a better takedown of this fairness argument when we asked him about it.

“It’s been remarkable how unfair this pandemic has been to low-income families, people of color and others,” Daigler told us. “So the pandemic itself has been terribly unfair.”

He emphasized that the free community college proposal is trying to target the rural and most impoverished communities that have been particularly disrupted by the pandemic.

“There are a lot of things that aren’t fair,” Daigler also told us. “We’ve got to help the people who need the help now.”

The $20 million for this free community college plan is part of Mills’ proposed supplemental budget, which is being debated amid a projected $1.2 billion revenue surplus. It would be a single investment in a specific cohort of students, but should it prove successful, it could be worth replicating. That will require the Maine Legislature deciding to move forward with the plan, and the community college system taking steps to track and measure its success for the students it aims to help.

“My heart goes out to this group of students and what they’ve had to endure, and you know what, the resilience that they don’t know that they’ve built up,” Daigler told us. He said that Maine’s community colleges can help students understand that resilience and give them the skills to “make them very powerful citizens in our workforce.”

That sounds like a worthwhile investment to us, particularly after what these students have been through.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...