Northern Maine Community College seniors from left Justin Maynard, Jayshawn Wright, and Caleb Pelletier learn hands-on diesel hydraulics taught at the community college in Presque Isle on Feb. 14. Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Community college enrollment may be down slightly across the nation, but it’s rising in Maine and Aroostook County leads the pack.

Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle saw a 32 percent fall enrollment increase over last year. As of Tuesday, numbers are up 24 percent for the spring semester.

The Maine Community College System’s seven campuses combined saw an increase of 12 percent in fall enrollment. In The County, those numbers more than doubled. Free tuition, funding and positive effects from the pandemic have contributed, but it all means the northern Maine campus is turning out more skilled workers for Maine, said college President Timothy Crowley.

“The conversation around free tuition and fees, which took about a year to put in place, really elevated the visibility of the community colleges,” Crowley said. “In doing so, people looked closer at what [NMCC] was doing.”

Federal and state money from the Maine Jobs and Recovery Act passed two years ago has helped the campus invest in short-term training programs, Crowley said. 

Those funds enabled Eastern Maine Community College to offer free emergency medical technician training, and allowed the northern Maine campus to expand its commercial truck driver training to Bangor.

It’s great to have collaborations with other Maine community colleges, the funding to support their programs, and the technology needed to help attract more students to enroll, Crowley said.

The pandemic had a positive effect on enrollment. Many people found new interests during that time, and as COVID-19 restrictions eased, more people came to the college to seek more hands-on skills training.

Northern Maine Community College seniors from left Justin Maynard and Jayshawn Wright learn hands-on diesel hydraulics taught at the community college in Presque Isle on Feb. 14. Credit: Paul Bagnall / The Star-Herald

The campus expanded its online education programs during that time, and the number of students enrolled in their business program has since doubled to contribute to their enrollment numbers.

Some of the growth has been in students right out of high school, but people in their mid- to late 20s are the largest population returning to college to learn a new skill due to being out of work. The college also sees people in their 60s enrolling in programs, Crowley said.

Growth hasn’t just happened for accredited academic programs, but in short-term, non-accredited workforce programs. For instance, the Commercial Driver’s License program has grown from 35 students per year to 120 this year, he said.

The campus splits its CDL training program between Presque Isle and Wells.  

“The demographics of this region are going to require that we respond to people that are working now to improve their skills for the next job, so that’s a major market for [NMCC],” Crowley said.

The nursing and electrical programs have experienced the most growth due to program expansions. 

The college created a licensed practical nursing program, a one-year training program that was supported by local rehabilitation and nursing facilities. In October 2022, the campus opened a new medical training center.

There’s also been growth in medical assistance and coding, and health programs associated with emergency medical services, Crowley said. The Presque Isle Fire Department currently has 30 people enrolled in paramedic courses through the college.

Changes made in large manufacturing facilities in Aroostook County, like Twin Rivers Paper in Madawaska, have seen an increased demand in industrial electricians. In response, NMCC doubled the size of their electrical program.

“One other thing that has contributed to the growth is the advancements we’ve made in technology to support hands-on instruction,” Crowley said. “Technology is an attraction and we are seeing that.”

Maine community colleges overall have been responsive to business needs in communities across the state with a focus on service-to-business-to-industry, and many students have jobs lined up before they graduate, he said.

A spring job fair helps students line up with prospective employers or additional education. For example, the University of Maine at Fort Kent was at Northern Maine Community College to recruit nursing students who want to pursue bachelor’s degrees.

Crowley doesn’t think enrollment will grow by another 30 percent next year, but does think the campus will continue to grow, especially as it collaborates with other campuses.  

“If we weren’t able to work with the other community colleges, and that wasn’t encouraged, I don’t think we would have seen this growth,” Crowley said.