Community colleges in Central Maine are seeing a boost in enrollment this fall, in part due to a state program allowing recent high school graduates to attend tuition-free.
At Central Maine Community College in Auburn, 47% more students have enrolled for the fall semester compared to the same time last year, according to Associate Dean of Enrollment Managements Andrew Morong. At Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield and Hinckley, enrollment is up 12%.
Statewide, the Maine Community College System has seen 11% more applications, slightly more than in 2019, according to the Portland Press Herald. Last year, enrollment was down 13% from the fall of 2019.
Maine’s free tuition has had a very big impact on CMCC’s surge in applications, Morong said, noting that the college is on track to approach or exceed its record enrollment of 3,200 students in the fall of 2019. The college has already exceeded 3,000 applications, a major benchmark for admissions.
Students eligible for the free two years of tuition are those who graduated high school, or earned their GED or high school diploma equivalent in 2020 though 2023. They can enroll at any of the seven community colleges but must be in a full-time degree program .
The free college scholarship covers the cost of tuition and other mandatory fees for two years, but not the cost of books, supplies and room and board.
At CMCC, numerous programs have 50% or more students enrolled for the fall than last year, including automotive technology; business management and administration; graphic communication; electrical mechanical technology; architecture and civil engineering; heating, ventilation and cooling technology; and life sciences, a track which prepares students for advanced study in medicine, pharmacy and dental careers.
Morong attributed CMCC’s success in part to a strong marketing campaign crafted even before Gov. Janet Mills approved the program. The school was ready with statewide advertisements in print, social media, TV and even on streaming services the moment the bill was signed.
The number of scheduled campus tours has been “ridiculous,” Morong said, and dozens of rising high school seniors have verbally committed to attending the school due to the state scholarship. The office of admissions even receives about a dozen calls each week from parents hoping the program will expand to include their children, who will graduate too late to take advantage of the program.
Although the number of applications has dropped 3% in comparison to the past academic year, enrollment at KVCC is up 12%, according to college data.
Enrollment for the upcoming academic year is at 250 students, where in the 2021 academic year, it was at 223, closer to the enrollment rate it had before the pandemic, at 360 students.
CJ McKenna, the dean of student affairs and enrollment at KVCC, said applications usually rise during the month of August, a month before the fall semester starts, but they anticipate a large “bump” from the free college program. He said this year it might be difficult to tell if the bump is from the free college initiative.
Since the free college only applies to recent high school graduates and the average community college student is 27 and between the ages of 17 and 60the initiative only applies to specific students, but it has been “very popular” among high school graduates, McKenna said.
“Without the initiatives, we would still get enrollment, but now it puts us on a short list of colleges people can choose from, maybe more than they would have a few years ago,” McKenna said.
Even if students are not eligible for free college, they might earn enough financial aid to bring the cost down to a more affordable rate.
The Maine Community College System says it has the lowest tuition fees for community colleges in New England. Tuition would normally be $2,880 a year for in-state students or $5,760 for out-of-state students.
Maine’s seven community colleges are: Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, Southern Maine Community College in South Portland and Brunswick, Washington County Community College in Calais, and York County Community College in York, in addition to CMCC and KVCC.