One Northern Maine Community College student lets her cap tell everyone what she'll do after earning her degree. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star Herald

Maine’s seven community colleges will see 12 percent more students on campus this fall as a new state program that allows recent Maine high school graduates to attend the community colleges for free for two years takes effect.  

Some 12,765 students had enrolled for the fall semester at the state’s seven community colleges as of Thursday, according to the Maine Community College System. That’s an increase of more than 1,400 students, or 12.4 percent, over last fall’s early enrollment tally of 11,359 students.

Maine community colleges also expect thousands more early college students — high school students enrolled in community college courses — to enroll in the next several weeks. Final fall enrollment figures are tallied on Oct. 15.

The spike in enrollment at the community colleges stands in contrast to early enrollment figures at Maine’s public universities, which are expecting about 5.7 percent fewer students on their campuses this fall compared with a year ago. The dip in enrollment among first-time university students is even more pronounced, matching a national trend of fewer students enrolling in college during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of the total fall enrollment at Maine’s community colleges, 42 percent — 5,399 students — qualify for the Free College scholarship, which allows Maine high school students who graduated during the COVID-19 pandemic to attend community college for free for two years.

Gov. Janet Mills’ supplemental budget, which passed in April, contained $20 million to ensure Maine 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.

“We deeply appreciate the state’s support in providing the funding for Free College, and we are eager to see these students, who otherwise may not have continued their education, thrive and succeed in pursuing their goals,” Maine Community College System President David Daigler said Friday.

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 new program motivated some recent Maine high school graduates to accelerate or change their higher education plans to take advantage of the free education opportunity.

The fall semester begins Monday at Central Maine Community College in Auburn, Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, Southern Maine Community College in South Portland and York County Community College in Wells.

Students at Washington County Community College in Calais begin classes Wednesday, and Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield starts Sept. 6.

The colleges offer a range of two-year degree programs, one-year certificate programs, and short-term workforce training courses that take between a few weeks and less than a year to complete.

The average cost of tuition and mandatory fees at Maine’s community colleges is $3,700 a year, according to the Maine Community College System.

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Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...