The University of Maine System is eliminating out-of-pocket tuition and fees at four of its campuses next fall for any first-year Maine student who qualifies for a need-based federal Pell grant.

The new financial aid program will be available to students at University of Maine at Presque Isle, Fort Kent, Augusta and Machias, officials said Wednesday.

“These campus programs represent exactly the kind of focus we need on innovation, debt reduction, and workforce to achieve two of our highest priorities: student success and economic development,” said Jim Erwin, chairman of the board of trustees.

Qualifying students will pay their Pell grant money toward tuition and fees, and won’t have to pay any outstanding balance.

Students will still have to pay for room and board, books and other costs, but they will qualify for work-study programs and other aid to help with those expenses, officials said.

Tuition and fees at the four campuses is about $7,500 a year. Room and board is estimated at about $8,000. A Pell grant covers up to $5,775 a year in costs.

Each campus will have slightly different guidelines for the program, but generally students must complete at least 30 credits each year and maintain a 2.0 GPA.

“This effort reaffirms our work to ensure that student loan debt does not prevent students from staying in Maine to take a job in their hometowns after they graduate,” said UMPI President Raymond Rice. The initiative was developed at UMPI and adopted by the other campuses.

Currently, students who graduated from UMPI in four years or less borrowed an average of $18,451.

The program will forgive about 124 UMPI students an average of $1,800 to $1,900 per year in tuition and fees, costing the school about $225,000 per year, according to Chris Bell, director of student financial services.

“This is something we can afford and that made it a moral imperative,” Rice said, noting that an increase in out-of-state students and other programs have brought in new revenue.

Systemwide, about 1,000 students are expected to be eligible for the program.

Statewide, 51 percent of Maine students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for 2016-2017 met the initial eligibility guidelines for a federal Pell grant, according to the Finance Authority of Maine.

The program comes just as tuition increased at the University of Maine System campuses this fall after a six-year freeze.

Money for the program comes from the campuses’ own financial aid funding. The system increased financial aid funds by $8 million in the last budget, an 11.6 percent increase in campus-based aid – the largest increase in system history.

Students in the program should also qualify for State of Maine Grant Program funding, which has a maximum grant award of $1,500 a year.

Officials say the move is expected to lower student debt while helping students graduate within four years and increasing retention.

At the Augusta campus, which serves more adult learners than the other campuses, the program, which will begin in the spring, will be open not only to first-year students, but to full-time transfer students and part-time students who take at least 15 credits a year.

Officials said the system’s larger campuses have also increased financial aid packages in the last five years to attract and retain students.

At the flagship campus in Orono, undergraduate merit and grant aid has increased $14.3 million or 92.5 percent in the last five years. USM increased campus financial aid by $12 million, and recently announced a plan to raise $15 million to fund a Promise Scholars Initiative to help disadvantaged youth receive up to 50 percent off tuition or awards to cover fees, room and board and other costs.

Farmington has increased merit and grant aid by $1.5 million for undergraduate students.

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

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