A new proposal in Maine could mean free community college for thousands of students as soon as the state’s new budget passes.
During a State of the State address on Thursday night, Maine Gov. Janet Mills proposed using $20 million in Maine’s next state budget to waive tuition and fees for all community college students in the state who graduated in 2020 or 2021 or 2022, 2023.
The idea, which could apply to around 8,000 people, is meant to help students most impacted by the pandemic and combat Maine’s acute workforce shortage.
"There’s a serious workforce need," said Mills during a Friday tour of Central Maine Community College in Auburn, Maine, adding that the problem has existed "for decades" but "the pandemic has made it worse."
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"Jobs today require a skill," said Dave Daigler, president of the Maine Community College System, who attended the appearance with Mills, adding that students in 2021 now "have to have an education in order to get a job, get traction in the economy and get ahead."
Daigler expects that the program, which would cover all costs remaining after a student files for FAFSA aid, would be extended to students who come to Maine community colleges from outside of the state.
Multiple students in the carpentry and construction classrooms at CMCC that Mills toured were surprised to learn she would be there on Friday, with some only finding out when they arrived in the building that morning that she would be there.
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"I did not (know) until I walked in," said Emma Thorburn, a CMCC student from Vermont who is working towards a career in carpentry and wants to one day run her own business.
Of the opportunity to be eligible for Mills’ planned program if it becomes law, Thorbun said, "I’m definitely hopeful that it might, f it does great, if it doesn’t."
"I wasn’t expecting something like this," she added.
Thorburn also hoped the process of approving the community college funding would be able to avoid a prolonged political debate but whether or not that happens during an election year for Mills is an unknown.
Her budget proposal containing the money is expected to be released next week and will have to be approved by Maine’s legislature.
Republicans, including former Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who is mounting a third campaign for office, and is likely to be Mills’ GOP challenger in 2022, said of the spending mentioned in Mills’ speech that "instead of working to fully eliminate Maine’s income tax like I have proposed, Janet Mills is promising more and more spending, propped up with funny money from deficit spending out of Washington, DC.”