While everyone talks about the rising costs of college, possibly the best-kept secret about higher education is the college that’s nearly free – community college.

“I figured I could go off to some private four-year college and be crazy in debt, or I could come to community college for two years,” said Alec Beland, 20.

Beland, who considered Unity College, wound up studying precision manufacturing at Southern Maine Community College. He graduates in May, and will attend the University of Southern Maine in the fall to pursue a bachelor of science degree in technology management. His employer, Scarborough manufacturer LAI International, is reimbursing him for tuition, books and lab fees at both SMCC and USM, he said.

In the end, Beland will get his bachelor’s degree for about $3,000 in student loans, compared to four years at Unity College, where tuition alone would have added up to more than $100,000.

As part of a specialized program for students in fire sciences, Breeanna Zoidis, 24, of Casco lives at the Kennebunk Fire Department’s central station while she attends Southern Maine Community College in South Portland.

As part of a specialized program for students in fire sciences, Breeanna Zoidis, 24, of Casco lives at the Kennebunk Fire Department’s central station while she attends Southern Maine Community College in South Portland.

In the face of soaring college tuition, tight household budgets and the specter of graduating with large amounts of student debt, more students are using the famously low-cost community college system as a steppingstone on the way to a four-year degree.

Today about 45 percent of all undergraduates, or 7.7 million students, are enrolled in public two-year colleges. That’s up from about 5.7 million in 2000.

In Maine, enrollment in liberal arts programs at community colleges has increased to about 32 percent, up from 10 percent in 2000, said Maine Community College System spokeswoman Helen Pelletier.

One in four Maine community college graduates goes on to enroll in a four-year institution, according to a survey of the system’s 6,659 graduates between 2008 and 2011, she said. The University of Maine System says the number of local community college students who have transferred to its campuses is up 14 percent in the last five years, even as overall enrollment in the UMaine System dropped 7.5 percent.

In January, President Obama gave community colleges a boost by announcing a proposal to make them tuition-free for students, with the federal government picking up 75 percent of the cost, and the remaining 25 percent coming from participating states. In Maine, such an arrangement would cost the state an estimated $7 million a year.

Actor Tom Hanks urged support for the proposal in a widely published January op-ed in The New York Times, saying his time as a student at California’s Chabot Community College “made me what I am today.”

“We could get our general education requirements out of the way at Chabot – credits we could transfer to a university – which made those two years an invaluable head start,” Hanks wrote. With Obama’s proposal, “high school graduates without the finances for a higher education can postpone taking on big loans and maybe luck into the class that will redefine their life’s work.”

Maine college officials say that’s what they see on campus, particularly during and since the recession.

“Students see community colleges as a cost-effective pathway to a university education,” said Janet Sortor, vice president and dean of academic affairs at SMCC. “Our students want a good return on their investment.”

INTEREST FROM WEALTHIER FAMILIES

In Maine, annual tuition and fees at a community college are about $3,400, less than half the roughly $10,000 a year for Maine’s public four-year university system.

That has drawn attention from wealthier families who presumably can afford tuition at four-year institutions, according to annual surveys of students and families by student loan giant Sallie Mae.

SMCC culinary arts students begin cleanup after their culinary arts lab at SMCC in South Portland.  Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

SMCC culinary arts students begin cleanup after their culinary arts lab at SMCC in South Portland. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

Sallie Mae’s 2014 “How America Pays for College” survey found that two-thirds of families crossed colleges off their list because of cost. At the same time, enrollment in two-year public colleges is at a peak and increasing numbers of wealthier families are sending their students to community colleges.

In 2014, 25 percent of students from families with incomes higher than $100,000 attended two-year public colleges, up from 12 percent in 2010, according to Sallie Mae.

Among all income groups, enrollment at two-year public colleges was 34 percent in 2014, up from 21 percent in 2010. At the same time, enrollment at four-year public colleges declined to 41 percent, from 52 percent in 2010, Sallie Mae found.

Higher education researcher David Jenkins said there is no specific research available on whether families are sending children to a two-year college before enrolling in a four-year to save money.

“We do hear it anecdotally, but it’s really hard to prove,” said Jenkins, senior research associate at Community College Research Center at Columbia University. The Sallie Mae reports are one of the best indicators of how various income groups are making school choice decisions, he said.

“This would suggest that it supports the anecdotal evidence,” he said.

“There’s a lot of social pressure to go to a four-year college. But this is the best value for the money,” said Rick Hopper, president of Kennebec Valley Community College. “Coming here is a no-brainer.”

Federal Pell Grants, which provide up to $5,730, more than cover the cost of tuition and fees at a community college. At KVCC, Hopper said 75 percent of students get those grants and about half the remaining students have their costs covered by local and state grants.

“If you come here, you probably aren’t going to pay anything,” he said.

A GROWING SYSTEM

Maine’s community college system is still relatively young.

Gov. John Baldacci signed the legislation in 2003 to turn the state’s technical colleges, which had been focused on job training, into a community college system with broader offerings, including liberal arts.

Today, the system has seven colleges – five with dorms – and enrolls about 18,000 students. In 2003, only about one in four students studied liberal arts programs, such as English, history and math, with the rest focused on career and technical programs. Today, about one in three students is enrolled in liberal arts programs, which are lower-division classes that will transfer to a four-year school.

Dan Lambert, 21, works on his senior project – a clock – at the machine lab at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland last month. He’ll be graduating in May and already knows what comes next: a job at North Berwick-based Pratt & Whitney.

Dan Lambert, 21, works on his senior project – a clock – at the machine lab at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland last month. He’ll be graduating in May and already knows what comes next: a job at North Berwick-based Pratt & Whitney.

In recent years, the Maine Community College system has expanded and added programs in computer forensics, network security, precision machining, veterinary technology and health information technology. It also has added campuses in Brunswick and Hinckley, and launched a fundraising foundation five years ago that has raised $26 million in private funding.

“Frankly, I’ve been very impressed with what the community colleges have been able to achieve,” said Baldacci, now a senior adviser with law firm Pierce Atwood.”They just seem to be more part of the answer, not part of the challenge. I feel very strongly that is what we need in Maine.”

The schools have been seen as a critical part of Maine’s economy, providing training for specific jobs in growing fields, such as health care, tourism and precision machining, while also being a resource for mid-career workers needing new skills or who were laid off during the recession and need new skills.

System officials and lawmakers are also working to make the jump from community college to university easier.

Maine community college students who graduate from liberal studies with a 2.5 GPA are guaranteed enrollment as a junior at any UMaine campus through the community college’s Advantage U program.

The community college and university systems are currently working on simplifying transfers, due to be completed in May, that transfer 34-35 credits from the community colleges to UMaine System schools that would satisfy all general education requirements.

Simplifying students’ ability to transfer from a two-year to a four-year institution was in the limelight in January, when Gov. Paul LePage demanded the ouster of John Fitzsimmons, longtime president of the Maine Community College System, citing in part his dissatisfaction with the slow pace of the transfer policy and another program that allows high school students to earn college credits.

SHAKING THE STIGMA

Sanford High School guidance counselor Mat Kiernan said community colleges weren’t considered a serious option for those on a four-year college path.

“When I was coming up, in the late 1990s, community colleges weren’t a consideration,” Kiernan said. “There was sort of a bias against it on the East Coast.”

That was because they started out as vocational schools, initially conceived as a low-cost, low-barrier alternative to traditional four-year schools, he said.

English professor Kevin Sweeney speaks to his literature class at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. Currently, about one in three students is enrolled in liberal arts programs, such as English and history, lower division classes that will transfer to a four-year school. State education leaders are working to simplify the transfer process as well.

English professor Kevin Sweeney speaks to his literature class at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. Currently, about one in three students is enrolled in liberal arts programs, such as English and history, lower division classes that will transfer to a four-year school. State education leaders are working to simplify the transfer process as well.

Community colleges also have worse rates of retention and graduation, a key metric of student success, compared to four-year colleges.

The graduation rate at Maine’s community colleges, measured as the number of students who get a two-year degree within three years, is 25 percent, higher than the 22 percent nationwide. About 60 percent of University of Maine students get their four-year degrees within six years, slightly higher than the 57 percent national average for public four-year colleges.

Community college advocates say the comparisons are unfair since their student body includes far more part-time and older students than most four-year colleges. The graduation rate also doesn’t include students who transfer or take a job before graduating, or people attending just to pick up a particular skill and don’t intend to get a degree.

According to a 2012 study by the National Student Clearinghouse, 15 percent of students who started at two-year institutions in 2006 completed a degree at a four-year institution within six years, and two-thirds of them did so without first “graduating” from a community college.

Beland, the SMCC student, said he and many of his fellow students already have part-time jobs. If the goal is to simply get a job, many of them could leave before completing two years of coursework.

The remedial rate at Maine’s community colleges – the number of students needing math or English courses to prepare for college – has been under a microscope during the LePage administration. LePage has used the nearly 50 percent remediation rate to criticize Maine’s public K-12 schools, even suggesting he might introduce legislation forcing school districts to pay the costs of remedial courses.

Last fall, 46 percent of the 1,976 freshman students from Maine needed remedial courses, for which students do not get course credit.

Nationally, it adds up. The Community College Research Center estimates that the annual cost of remediation at community colleges is nearly $4 billion, and as high as $7 billion a year for all colleges.

COSTS INCREASING

Although community college is still cheaper than a four-year, the costs are going up.

Over the last 30 years, community college tuition has increased 150 percent, compared to 225 percent for public four-year institutions, according to the College Board.

Lahana Palencia, a 20-year old student at SMCC in South Portland, poses for a portrait on campus. Palencia took a year off between high school and college, and after initially wanting to attend USM, she chose SMCC. abe Souza/Staff Photographer

Lahana Palencia, a 20-year old student at SMCC in South Portland, poses for a portrait on campus. Palencia took a year off between high school and college, and after initially wanting to attend USM, she chose SMCC. abe Souza/Staff Photographer

In the late 1990s, the Maine system had some of the highest tuitions in the nation for two-year colleges, and the board froze it at $2,040, where it stayed until 2005. Today, tuition is $2,700, just below the national average of $2,713.

During the recession, students flooded community colleges at the same time state governments were cutting higher-education appropriations. Many state systems raised their tuition in response.

Maine bucked the trend, making only modest increases in tuition. Adjusted for inflation, Maine is one of three states in the nation that saw community college tuition and fees actually drop. By comparison, over the same five-year period, Louisiana increased its tuition and fees by 62 percent and California increased its by 58 percent.

Grant money offsets many of the costs, particularly since the rate of available aid, through grants and tax breaks, has risen faster than tuition and fees, according to the College Board.

Between 2004-05 and 2014-15, the average published tuition and fees at public two-year colleges increased by $730, or 28 percent, but aid and tax benefits increased by more than $2,000.

Grant money goes to about half of all students, whether they are at a two-year or four-year college. Student loans are another story. Only 18 percent of public two-year students take out loans, for an average of $4,700 a year, compared to 39 percent of students at four-year colleges, who take out loans averaging $6,600 a year.

In the end, almost 30 percent of all community college students pay nothing, or get money back for attending, according to federal statistics.

“I love it here,” said Kathy Sanborn, 40, a former school bus driver who is pursuing dual degrees in fire sciences and paramedicine at Southern Maine Community College. “I think you can get as good an education at a community college than you can at a higher-priced university.

“If you’re going back to school, this is the place to do it.”