SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Maine's community college leaders believe the state's free tuition program that started this year led to an "unprecedented" spike in enrollment.
More than 1,400 new students enrolled in Maine community colleges in fall 2022 compared to the prior year. Southern Maine Community College President Joe Cassidy said the program brought nearly 600 new students to campus — 580 of which are fresh out of high school.
"The spike in enrollment that we are convinced is a result of the free college program has been totally unprecedented in our system. I've been with the MCCS for 20 years, and we've seen nothing like this before," Cassidy said.
Data from the MCCS show Northern Maine Community College and York County Community College had the highest percentage increases in enrollment, 23.3%, and 24.8%, respectively.
SMCC had the highest number of new students enrolled from fall 2022 to fall 2021.
The MCCS tallies the final numbers of fall enrollment on Oct. 15.
One of them was Cleusio Luvumbua. He and his family moved to Maine five years ago, seeking asylum from the civil war in their home country of Angola. Now, he is a high school graduate and freshman at SMCC, who said the free tuition was critical for him to pursue his passion for computer science.
"If it was not free, I would have to work and pay for college, and it would be hard for me to study and deal with school," Luvumbua said. "Who doesn't want to save money? Everybody wants to save money."
Free community college tuition is part of the state budget that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle approved.
Students who graduated high school in 2020, '21, '22, or '23 can take advantage.
Viktoria Sugars came back to Maine after her first year of college in Hawaii once she found out.
"I planned on moving back just so I could get that free year, so I definitely was excited when I heard it was free," said Sugars.
She is majoring in psychology with the hope of being a forensic psychologist. Her plan was to pay her parents back as they fund her college. Free tuition for her was a no-brainer.
"[It] saved me a lot of money," she said.
The program also encourages Maine students to work and live in a state that is losing its young people to other states with more prestigious colleges and promises of better-paying jobs.
"We are, as a state, investing in young people so they can stay here and make a living and support our economy and support their own families," Cassidy said. "It's a proof of concept. If this thing works the way we think it's going to, it's going to be impossible to walk away from."
One wrinkle for SMCC, in particular, is housing. Its three on-campus dormitories are full. The college contracted with the DoubleTree hotel in South Portland to house roughly 122 students, and there is a waitlist for students to get into on-campus housing. Students staying in the DoubleTree will be charged the same double rate they would pay for on-campus housing, $3,500 a semester.
There is a chartered bus to transport those students to campus.
"The College has been working with students on our waitlist and so far has been able to house everyone who needed the hotel option. Students on the waitlist were asked if they wanted to be housed in the hotel, and some students opted not to as they could commute for now. We still receive housing applications and work to make new assignments as we get cancellations," a school representative said.