BANGOR, Maine — When it comes to getting a higher education, a major barrier for many people is the amount of money that decision can cost. Last year, Forbes reported that Americans had $1.5 trillion in student loan debt -- the highest ever recorded.

Now, imagine being able to get everything college promises for free -- training in some field, a job that hopefully pays well, a sense of giving back to the community. A Maine community college program in its first year is well on its way to making that a reality for some -- and it doesn't take nearly as long as a traditional degree. 

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With the help of a $3.6 million Harold Alfond grant, the Maine Community College System is providing a variety of certificate training programs to students interested in working in high-demand fields in Maine. The grant at this point will serve certain community colleges for three years. Right now, the programs being offered to students are:

  • Medical assisting at Eastern Maine Community College, Southern Maine Community College
  • Welding at Kennebec Valley Community College, Southern Maine Community College
  • Computer support at Central Maine Community College

This year, 180 students are participating. That includes 40 within the medical assisting program, which 156 people applied to enter. Dan Belyea, the Executive Director of Workforce Training for the Maine Community College System, says they plan on adding 20 slots in about two weeks for people they think would be a good fit, since the program is popular. 

"It’s people that are saying, 'Hey, I want to learn a new skill. I want to get employed. I want to make a decent wage and live the American Dream,'" Belyea explained to NEWS CENTER Maine.

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The program is likely so competitive because it allows students to attend classes for a year and then graduate with expectations of filling high-demand, high-need jobs in Maine -- and, above all, it's free.

"You usually have to pay a lot," Hollie Hutchinson, a medical assisting student at EMC, laughed. "College is expensive, but they pay for the books, the classes."

"(Students are) not going to have a student loan to participate in this program," Belyea added. "They’re leading to a job with employers that are just screaming for them. It’s gratifying."

It's also uplifting to people like Barbara Marchelletta, a woman who has been in the medical assisting field for about 30 years and is now the director of medical assisting at EMCC.

"It is very rewarding because every time I go to the doctor’s office, I’m going to see a former student," Marchelletta smiled.

While Marchelletta notes with caution that the course is strenuous, since it is done in such a short amount of time, she says the college tries to work with students' schedules, since most of them have either part or full-time jobs. The flexibility is something students say they appreciate.

"They’re great here, so I wouldn’t trade it for the world," student Stephanie Hsomer said. "I’m glad I did it."

"You’re really focusing on the skills that you’re going to use in the workforce once you graduate," fellow student Sarah Burby noted about why she appreciates the course's specific focus, too. She is simultaneously pursuing a bachelor's degree in social work at the University of Maine in Orono.

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For years two and three, Belyea told NEWS CENTER Maine that MCCS will be offering:

  • Phlebotomy, industrial electrical repair, facility maintenance (year two)
  • Software development, heavy equipment operation (year three)

The network is apparently going to try to fold year three into year two, coming up in July, to get more people out in the workforce sooner.

To apply, you must have a high school diploma and plan on entering the workforce you're studying in after graduation.