Chris Ouellette, 18, will attend Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor full-time this fall. Ouellette is among a group of Maine students who finished high school during the pandemic and can attend community college for free. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Chris Ouellette discovered his passion during his senior year of high school, and now he wants to become a licensed electrician.

The recent graduate from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor initially planned to work for a while before embarking on the classroom component of his journey to become a master electrician. But a new state program that allows Ouellette and other recent Maine high school graduates to attend the state’s community colleges for free for two years has accelerated his plans.

“I was kind of heading towards that direction already before,” he said. “But, of course, once the word came out that there was going to be this free college, it was even more of a push for me to do it now.”

Ouellette, who is 18 and lives in Glenburn, will attend Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor full time this fall. He’ll be among a group of Maine students who finished high school during the pandemic and can attend community college for free thanks to a $20 million investment in Gov. Janet Mills’ supplemental budget that passed in April.

The funds mean that high school students graduating in 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023 who enroll full time at one of Maine’s seven community colleges this fall and next attend for free. The state program covers costs that existing scholarships and financial aid don’t cover.

Students have to enroll full time because full-time students tend to be more successful, said David Daigler, president of the Maine Community College System. If a graduate from 2020 or 2021 is already attending a community college, the free college program would cover costs for the coming year and the following one. It wouldn’t apply retroactively to cover costs for completed semesters.

The community college won’t have figures until later in the summer showing how many students are taking advantage of the offer, but there’s been great interest so far, Daigler said.

“In a nutshell, this is a group of students who were rattled by the pandemic, and this program targets them and allows them to go to college like no other generation of students,” he said.

While a handful of states offer free community college, the temporary program is a first for Maine.

Liz Russell, Eastern Maine Community College’s new president who’s been with the school for almost 30 years, said she hasn’t seen this much interest in community colleges since a spate of paper mill closures within the past decade sent a number of laid-off workers back to school to train for new careers.

Chris Ouellette, 18, wires a new home in Orono on Friday. Ouellette, who will attend Eastern Maine Community College for free this fall, is working as an electrician’s apprentice. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

In the Bangor area, interest is coming both from students like Ouellette who attended classes at the United Technologies Center to learn technical trades and students who want to get started for free on a more traditional four-year college education.

“I know that there are students who aren’t sure what they want to do as a future career, and this is a safe, low-cost way for them to get started in higher education, particularly given all of the transfer agreements that we have with four-year institutions,” Russell said.

Mills approached the community college system with the idea of using surplus revenue for the free college program, Daigler said.

Part of the goal was to train more people to step into in-demand jobs as employers have had difficulty filling openings, he said.

“The problem is, there are a whole bunch of people out there who don’t have the skills necessary to fill those jobs and those job opportunities,” Daigler said. “What we need is to get that message out and say there are tremendous jobs out there, but to qualify for those jobs you have to have the training and education necessary.”

The free community college program is coming online as Maine’s other public, post-secondary education system, the University of Maine System, is poised to welcome its smallest class of full-time, first-year students in years this fall.

Robert Placido, the university system’s vice chancellor of academic affairs, said the free community college program could lead to an increase in UMaine System transfer students in the coming years,

“We don’t consider ourselves competitors at all,” he said. “A large chunk of our transfers come from the community college system. So when they’re down, we’re going to be down in just a couple of years in the future.”

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...