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Maine community colleges: Free tuition plan should bring more students, future workforce

Gov. Mills wants to provide free tuition to Maine’s community colleges for the next three years.

AUBURN, Maine — Students were busy Friday morning, working in the building trades classes at Central Maine Community College. Hammers, nail guns, and saws could be heard in a trade skills program the construction industry urgently needs.   

"That's why the free community college initiative is so important," Christine Kendall, CEO of H.E. Callahan Construction, said. The company has home offices just a few miles away in Auburn.

"We need more skilled workers to join our industry, and we're ready to hire them right now," Kendall said. 

Maine's workforce shortage has been a growing problem for years but has seemingly never been more severe than it is now. 

The pandemic, an aging population, and changing interests among younger people have combined to create a severe shortage of workers in construction and several other skilled jobs, such as health care and hospitality.

Gov. Janet Mills has an idea to change that.

She wants to provide free tuition to Maine's community colleges for the next three years as a way to persuade more recent high school graduates to seek out skills training.

The program would only be available for students who graduated from high school in 2020, 2021, 2022, or 2023. A spokeswoman for the Maine Community College System said that, possibly because of COVID-related issues, fewer students from 2020 and 2021 classes have been choosing to go on to school and seek out training. She said enrollments at the community colleges are down as a result.

Maine Community College System President David Daigler said they're hoping the free tuition plan will persuade some of those young people to come off the sidelines and seek out education and training.

"You've given those students a new opportunity, a new start," Daigler said to Mills during her Friday visit to the Auburn campus. "They can take down the barrier of tuition [and] don't have to worry about incurring debt."

The $20 million funding proposed by Mills for her supplemental state budget would only cover the free tuition for three years and only for those eligible age groups.  

Mills said the Maine Community College System would monitor the results and report how well it works.

"I'd love to get a good uptake, that we get people trained up with one-year certificates or two-year degrees and get them into the workforce," Mills said. 

The proposal will need to pass muster with the Legislature, expecting to receive Mills' total supplemental budget next week. Lawmakers will have just two months, at the most, to deal with the package.

Republicans are not ready to embrace the plan yet, saying they're waiting to see all the details of the large spending plan for using a projected $822 million revenue surplus.  

The governor proposed returning half of that money to taxpayers in a direct payment, presumably late in the year. The other half of the surplus would be used for various programs, including the free tuition.

Senate GOP leader Jeff Timberlake, R-Androscoggin, said, "We need to see a lot more detail."

Meanwhile, Daigler said he hopes they can use the free tuition to attract as many as 8,000 students over the next few years. If passed, the first payments would begin in the fall semester.

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