Gov. Janet Mills has proposed a $20 million plan to pay for up to two years of community college for qualified students who were part of high school graduating classes from 2020 through 2023.

The proposal was described to the Press Herald Thursday afternoon by a state official with direct knowledge of the governor’s plan and it was mentioned by Mills in her State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature on Thursday night. The plan is expected to be included in Mills’ supplemental budget, which will outline her plans for an estimated $822 million surplus projected through mid-2023. It would need to be approved by the Legislature and would be funded through a one-time transfer to the Maine Community College System.

It comes after First Lady Jill Biden announced that a proposal to provide free college tuition at community colleges nationwide was being stripped from the Build Back Better bill. That plan would have provided $45.5 billion to states to fund two years of community college for a five-year period.

In her first in-person speech before a joint session since the pandemic began, Mills pitched the idea as a way to help students affected by the pandemic and as a workforce development program, allowing students to earn an associate degree or one-year certificate without being burdened by debt. The program would allow graduates to enter the workforce with specialized skills and earn higher wages at a time when workers are desperately needed, the state official said.

“Governor Mills knows that community college is a powerful tool, delivering a high-quality education that prepares Maine students for the jobs of today and tomorrow and providing our employers with the workforce our state desperately needs to continue moving our economic recovery forward,” the official said. “With her proposal, she is saying directly to Maine’s students: I know the pandemic has been hard, but the future is yours and we want to help you embrace it.”

It wasn’t clear Thursday if the idea will win the support of enough legislators. At least some Republicans expressed doubts after Mills’ State of the State address.

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Mills’ tuition proposal fell flat with Rep. Susan Bernard, R-Caribou, even though it would probably be a boon for her employer, Northern Maine Community College. She said it was unfair to former students who took on a lot of college debt five years ago, not to mention those who intend to go forgo college for the workforce.

She also said it will hurt the very students that Mills claims it will help.

“A free education will devalue the credential,” Bernard said after the address. “So many of our students are proud that they’re paying for their education. So proud of it that they put “I paid for it” on their mortarboards at graduation. … People need to feel like their credential is worth something and this will hurt that.”

House Minority Leader Kathleen Dillingham said free community college sounds like “a wonderful concept,” but she’s worried about the long-term sustainability of the proposal. She wondered if there would be enough revenue so that, if implemented, “we’re not just going to see something that benefits our students for two or three years but is going to be ongoing.”

“I’d like to see how that’s going to be implemented once we get past the four-years out that she talked about,” she said. “If there’s an economic downturn, what happens then?”

About a third of U.S. states, including Tennessee, Oregon, Nevada and Washington, offer some form of free community college tuition, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Each program is different, with some targeting specific fields, or certain students, such as those from low- or middle-income families.

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Under Mills’ proposal, in-state students in high school graduating classes from 2020 through 2023 who enroll in community college full time could be eligible for the program. The state official estimated that 8,000 students could qualify.

Southern Maine Community College graduates from the Cullinary Arts and Fire Science Technology programs wear appropriate hats during their commencement at Cross Insurance Arena in Portland on Sunday, May 12, 2019. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Students who graduated in 2020, 2021 and 2022 would need to enroll by this fall and those graduating next year would need to enroll by the fall of 2023.

STUDENTS MUST ENROLL FULL TIME

To qualify, students must enroll full time and earn 30 credits per year; pursue an associate degree or one-year certificate; qualify for in-state tuition or commit to living and working in Maine; and accept all federal and state grants, scholarships, and any other funding sources.

Both new and existing students would be eligible, and students studying part-time can become eligible by enrolling as a full-time student or by applying for admission into a community college, the official said.

Funds will remain in place until the students complete their associate or certificate programs, as long as they remain enrolled full time. Students who qualify will receive funding to cover both tuition and mandatory fees.

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Mills will visit Central Maine Community College in Auburn on Friday to promote her tuition plan. She will join community college officials and a local builder to tour a construction program classroom, where students are developing skills to succeed in the construction industry.

Mills also said Thursday that she plans to help students who have already graduated college pay off their education debts by expanding eligibility for the Opportunity Maine Tax Credit.

The free tuition proposal would be the latest investment in higher education for Mills, who previously allocated about $90 million in federal funding in the American Rescue Plan Act to community colleges, universities and technical education centers.

Through the Maine Jobs & Recovery Act approved by the Legislature last year, Mills allocated $35 million to the Maine Community College System, $35 million to the University Maine System and $20 million to Maine’s Career and Technical Education Centers.


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