Ds Scholarship

Gov. Mills to unveil $20 million plan for free community college tuition

During tonight’s State of the State address, Gov. Janet Mills will propose a $20 million plan to pay for up to a two-year community college tuition for high school graduates affected by the pandemic, according to a state official with direct knowledge of the governor’s plan.

The proposal is expected to be included in Mills’ supplemental budget, which will outline her plans for an estimated $822 million surplus projected through mid-2023. The proposal would need to be approved by the Legislature and would be funded through a one-time transfer to the Maine Community College System.

It comes after First Lady Jill Biden announced that a proposal to provide free college tuition at community colleges was being stripped from the Build Back Better bill. That plan would have provided $45.5 billion to states to fund two years of community college for a five-year period.

In her first in-person speech before a joint session since the pandemic began, Mills plans to pitch the idea as a workforce development program, allowing students to earn an associate degree or one-year certificate without being burdened by debt. The program would allow graduates to enter the workforce with specialized skills and earn higher wages at a time when workers are desperately needed, the state official said.

“Governor Mills knows that the college community is a powerful tool, delivering a high-quality education that prepares Maine students for the jobs of today and tomorrow and providing our employers with the workforce our state desperately needs to continue moving our economic recovery forward,” the official said. “With her proposal, she is saying directly to Maine’s students: I know the pandemic has been hard, but the future is yours and we want to help you embrace it.”

About a third of US states, including Tennessee, Oregon, Nevada and Washington, offer some form of free community college tuition, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Each program is different, with some targeting specific fields, or certain students, such as those from low- or middle-income families.

Under Mills’ proposal, students who graduated high school from 2020-2023 and enroll in community college full time would be eligible for the program. The state official estimated that 8,000 students could qualify. Students who graduated in 2020, 2021 and 2022 would need to enroll by this fall and those graduating next year would need to enroll by fall of 2023.

To qualify, students must enroll full time and earning 30 credits per year; pursue an associate degree or one-year certificate; qualify for in-state tuition or commit to living and working in Maine; and accept all federal and state grants, scholarships, and any other funding sources.

Both new and existing students would be eligible, and students studying part-time can become eligible by enrolling as a full-time student or by applying for admission into a community college, the official said.

The funding the “last dollar” scholarship, which would cover tuition and mandatory fees, will remain in place until the student completes their associate or certificate program, as long as they remain enrolled full-time.

The proposal would be the latest investment in higher education for Mills, who previously allocated about $90 million in federal funding to the American Rescue Plan Act to community colleges, universities and technical education centers.

Through the Maine Jobs & Recovery Act approved by the Legislature last year, Mills allocated $35 million to the Maine Community College System, $35 million to the University Maine System and $20 million to Maine’s Career and Technical Education Centers.

In tonight’s address, Mills is expected to describe other proposals of her supplemental budget, including how she plans to return some of the projected surplus to taxpayers struggling to afford the rising costs of food, fuel and other necessities.

Last year, one-time checks issued to people who worked during the pandemic received bi-partisan support, but some Republicans are looking for tax breaks, while others have expressed interest in another round of payments.

Politicalrs view Mills’ speech as the informal kickoff to her re-election campaign, which is expected to be a two-way race against former Gov. Paul LePage, though leaders have urged the governor to remain focused on issues and policies before the Legislature.

This story will be updated.

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