Student of the year, resident dorm counselor, and speaker of five languages, Graca Muzela proved to be a star student during his freshman year at Washington County Community College. He is passionate about his education and dreams of finishing his associate’s degree, becoming an electrical engineer, and saving up to buy his parents a house.
But until a few months ago, he wasn’t even sure if he could go to college for a second year.
“I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it,” he said. “I was so worried.”
But the 20-year-old’s worries disappeared this spring when the state approved a plan to pay tuition and fees for full-time community college students who have graduated from high school or passed an exam. equivalence during the years 2020 to 2023.
Although college is often crucial to future success, it is expensive. For the 2021-2022 school year, tuition to attend one of Maine’s seven community colleges was $2,880 per year for in-state students and $5,760 for out-of-state students. of State. But that doesn’t include the cost of fees, books, or room and board, which last year ranged from $7,600 to $12,000 for in-state and out-of-state students. Although federal and state grants and scholarships are available for low-income students, they often do not fully cover the cost of education and living expenses and are rarely available to immigrants, such as Muzela.
Maine’s legislature allocated $20 million for the initiative in the $1.2 billion supplemental budget it passed in April. The state said it expects the program to supplement or fully pay community college tuition and other mandatory fees for 8,000 students.
Muzela said he felt a weight lift off his shoulders when he found out his tuition would be covered for the upcoming school year. His eyes lit up and a smile appeared on his face as he talked about free college. “I was so happy when I heard,” he said, shaking his head almost in disbelief.
STUDENTS ENJOY FREE COLLEGE
Interest in the state’s community colleges has grown since the announcement of free college in April. As of Thursday, the system had received 11% more applications from new students compared to the same period last year. So far this summer, 13,919 students have applied to attend a community college in Maine in the fall, up from 12,551 students at the same time last year. Community colleges are even seeing slightly increased attention from prospective students compared to this time in 2019, before the pandemic.
This comes against the backdrop of a decade of declining enrollment in higher education institutions in Maine and across the country.
At an enrollment event at Southern Maine Community College in July, faculty advisors guided incoming students through class registrations and answered questions about classes and free college. Arianna Miller, an 18-year-old from Auburn, said before the free college announcement that she wasn’t sure whether to go to college or get a full-time job. She thought she was trying to earn more hours at the sports bar where she works as a hostess. But when she found out that tuition would be covered, she decided to enroll. She wants to be a firefighter.
Another incoming student, Kaleb McPhail, 19, said he planned to go to Thomas College in Waterville, where he is from, but when he found out tuition would be free at community colleges of the state, he decided to enroll there instead. McPhail hopes to become a K-9 police officer. He has three dogs at home and says it’s been his dream job since he was a kid.
FINANCIAL AID UNDER CONDITIONS
The concept of providing free college is not new or unique to Maine, but over the past decade the idea has become more popular. It was a major plank in President Biden’s platform when he ran for office, though it doesn’t look like free college will be backed federally anytime soon. First Lady Jill Biden, who is a community college teacher, has been pushing for a free community college for decades.
Many states have some sort of free or subsidized university program at the institutional, city, or state level.
In March, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, signed into law the nation’s most inclusive tuition-free college program. The New Mexico Scholarship Act waives tuition for full-time and part-time students attending two- and four-year public institutions in the state, and is available to adult learners and returning immigrants, regardless of their immigration status.
The Free Maine College Scholarship is only available to students who graduated between 2020 and 2023 and requires students to enroll in the spring of 2024 and graduate within two years.
Students must also first accept any other state or federal grants or scholarships awarded to them. The Maine Free University Scholarship will cover tuition and compulsory fees after applying for other state or federal grants and scholarships. This method of funding, called last-dollar funding, means that tuition and fees will be covered, but other important costs such as books and room and board will not.
FREE COLLEGE GAINS IN POPULARITY NATIONALLY
Tuition-free college programs have been popular, leading to spikes in applications and enrollments like those seen in Maine. They also point to the idea that the cost of a college education is a significant barrier for people who want to pursue post-secondary education, and that when this barrier is removed, more students will show up.
“We believe that free college is the most effective policy a state government can adopt to help build its economic future while providing immediate opportunities for the state’s youth,” Morley Winograd said. , chair of the nonprofit Campaign for Free Tuition.
Winograd said removing the cost barrier will increase levels of higher education in all fields, providing more people with opportunities for economic mobility and increasing the country’s GDP by increasing individual incomes.
Studies consistently show that higher degrees lead to higher incomes. Bachelor’s degree holders earn an average of $2.8 million over their career; those with an associate degree earn $2 million; and people with a high school diploma earn $1.6 million, according to a 2021 study from Georgetown University.
Most people are in favor of free college. Among American adults, 63% support making all public colleges free and 36% oppose it, according to a 2021 poll by the Pew Research Center. Democrats, minorities, and people under 50 view free college more favorably than white adults, Republicans, and people over 50. Only 18% of Republicans over 50 with a four-year degree favor free public college, according to the same poll. . Opponents say free college is financially unsustainable and unfair to those who have gone into college debt in the past.
But Governor Janet Mills said that by educating Maine students and training them to go into fields with high demand for workers, the free university will support Maine’s economy as it strives to rebound from the post. the pandemic and combating the shortage of labor that is plaguing the country.
“We need to increase the number of people entering the trades,” she said. “These are high-paying jobs that you can get in Maine and stay in the state to live and raise a family.”
As it stands, the Free University Scholarship is only available to students who graduated during the pandemic. But Mills said she could push for the program to continue past next fall. “We will be looking at all aspects of the program and hope to continue it depending on the funds available,” she said.
The Free Maine University Scholarship is likely to have a particularly big impact on new Maine residents, who are often excluded from state and federal financial aid programs. At the federal level, green card holders, refugees, asylum seekers, and other specific groups are eligible for federal financial assistance, but it can often take years or even decades to get a card. green or obtain refugee or asylum seeker status.
Graca Muzela, who fled Angola three years ago with his parents and three siblings, said his immigration status is one of the main reasons the free university scholarship is so important to him. . Last year, he was not eligible for any state or federal financial aid. He was able to pay for his education through a patchwork of private grants and scholarships and help from community members who saw potential in him. But this kind of support is unusual.
A few of Muzela’s Angolan friends who live in Maine opted out of college last year due to financial barriers. But this year, Muzela said, he told them college was free and they are now in the process of applying to Southern Maine Community College.
Other students had similar reactions to free college. Lewiston High School Aspirations Coordinator Kate Chase said many students she worked with who were hesitant to go to college because they didn’t want to take out loans decided to try college when they heard it would be free. “As soon as it was announced, the kids were like it was a given,” she said.
“It’s great to talk to these kids about it and let them know they can live their dreams without taking out big loans,” Chase said. “It takes a huge burden off them.”
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