The Working Waterfront

Free community college gets good marks

Program achieving workforce, educational goals

By Stephanie Bouchard
Posted 2023-04-18
Last Modified 2023-04-18

Emma Brezovsky, 18, a senior at Bucksport High School, wants to become a teacher. To achieve that goal, she knows she needs a bachelor’s degree.

“My original plan was just going to be four years at [University of Maine] Farmington,” she said. “But now I’m going to do two at Eastern Maine [Community College in Bangor] and then finish at Farmington. It’s going to be a lot cheaper.”

What changed Brezovsky’s mind about doing all four years of her undergraduate education at one school is the Free College Scholarship program created through the allocation of $20 million by the state legislature last year. The program has been such a success that there is currently a proposal at the state house to extend funding to support the classes of 2024 and 2025.

“We’re getting the students that we’re hoping to get, which is a student who’s at risk of not going on and getting a college degree of any kind.”

The Free College Scholarship program seeks to address two statewide concerns, says David Daigler, president of the Maine Community Colleges System: that a large number of Maine youth are not going on to get any education beyond high school, and building the state’s workforce.

While it’s still early, all indicators are that the scholarship program is meeting the first part of its goals, said Daigler.

“We’re getting the students that we’re hoping to get, which is a student who’s at risk of not going on and getting a college degree of any kind.”

Enrollment is up at the seven community colleges, and has especially rebounded at the most rural of the campuses in Washington and Aroostook counties, which as of the fall semester saw enrollment increases of 25% and 31%, respectively.

And Maine is bucking the national trend of young men backing away from higher education. Those enrolled through the Free College Scholarship program are 49% men and 50% women, Daigler said.

The scholarship program supports students who received or will receive a high school diploma or its equivalency from an in-state or out-of-state school in 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023 by covering the cost of tuition and mandatory fees (but not room and board). The average cost of tuition and mandatory fees at Maine’s community colleges is $3,700 a year. Students must reside in Maine to be eligible for the scholarship.

The expectation is that many of the students who get the training through the scholarship program will likely return to their communities to live and work. While that remains to be seen, it’s vitally important that the pathway for such an outcome exists, said Kristy Hastings, student services coordinator at Mid-Coast School of Technology in Rockland.

“Without the trades programs and the programs that the community colleges offer,” she said, “our community doesn’t survive.”

A spokesperson for the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development said in an email:

“Free community college is an opportunity to tackle multiple challenges in Maine’s economy at one time. It is clear that we need a workforce that can meet the needs of in-demand jobs. This will not only help to start to address our state’s workforce challenge but will also give those students the opportunity to have a meaningful career so they can stay in Maine long term. It creates paths and opportunity for students who say tuition is a barrier to furthering their education.

“While we recognize that this investment alone won’t solve the state’s workforce challenges, we believe it is a good step forward for both the students enrolled, the communities they will live in, and the organizations they will either start or work for.”

The Free College Scholarship program is a “huge” opportunity for students and Maine communities, said Heather Davis, a guidance counselor at Bucksport High School.

“It probably opens more avenues for students to have this opportunity that might not be able to afford it otherwise.”

It also creates additional options for students, like her son who attends Mount Desert Island High School, who are worried about the future of traditional mainstays of Maine’s economy.

“My son is a fifth-generation lobsterman,” she said. “His heart and passion are in the family history of the generations of lobstermen, but right now he’s thinking, ‘I need to go to school for business or have a backup plan in case this is a crossroads for the industry.’”

The community college system offers more than 300 programs to present students with a broad array of options, the system’s president said. There are more traditional classroom-heavy courses, but there are quite a number of experiential pathways, too, which are popular with students.

Seventy-seven percent of the students in the Free College Scholarship program are enrolled in career and technical education programs, he said. Those include trades, such as welding, heating, and electrical, and healthcare, the field with the highest enrollment.
“The vast majority of our students are actually using this to get trade-based skills,” Daigler said. “In order to get a job with a career opportunity, you have to have a skillset.”

Applications for the current funding of the Free College Scholarship program are still being accepted. To learn more about the program, go to