AUGUSTA — Fall enrollment is up 12% at Maine’s community colleges, boosted by a new Free College Scholarship aimed at re-engaging people whose high school experience was severely disrupted by COVID.

“This is great news because Maine needs people with skills and education that our community colleges deliver,” David Daigler, president of the Maine Community College System, said in a press release. “Free college has really opened the door for so many people who may not have otherwise pursued their interests and dreams.”

Total headcount this fall is 16,791 students, up from 15,004 students last year, according to the official tally on Oct. 15. First-time student enrollment is up 28% from last year.

Slightly more than a third of this year’s fall class (5,574 students) are eligible for the Free College Scholarship because they graduated from high school or earned a Hi-SET diploma in 2020, 2021 or 2022.

“The large number of high school graduates from the classes of 2020 and 2021 really shows how the Free College Scholarship accomplished what it set out to do — draw in students who paused their education or maybe decided they weren’t going to pursue college in the midst of the pandemic,” Daigler said.

Of the Free College-eligible students, 2,481 are from the class of 2022; 1,821 are from 2021; and 1,272 are from 2020.

“A deeper look at those Free College students reveals that 1,232 students graduated in 2020 and 2021 but had never enrolled in college before. That’s huge” Daigler said.

High school graduates from the classes of 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023 all qualify for a Free College Scholarship that pays 100% of tuition and mandatory fees after grant aid has been applied. The Free College Scholarship was proposed by Gov. Janet Mills and enacted by the Legislature in the state’s most recent supplemental budget.

Current high school seniors are the last graduating class to qualify for Free College scholarships, unless the program is extended in the next legislative session. Students must pursue a two-year degree or one-year certificate full-time, live in Maine while enrolled, and stay on track for graduating on time.

Other factors that contributed to higher enrollment this fall include: expanding high-demand nursing programs; adding new, high-demand, one-year certificate and two-year degree programs; increasing outreach to high schools and adult learning centers; adding staff in admissions and advising; boosting marketing; and participating in more community and business events. The colleges also launched a new “Return, Resume, Reward” program that forgives up to $2,000 in past debt for returning students.

“We don’t want to be the best-kept secret in Maine,” Daigler said. “We’ve been doing everything we can to get the word out about the terrific programs and opportunities we offer. It’s relevant, it’s a bargain, we bring education to rural and remote corners of the state, and we are truly committed to our students’ success.”

In addition to a double-digit increase in headcount and new students, the system has a 17% increase in credit hours, meaning more students are taking more classes. Four community colleges have more than a 20% increase in credit hours.

“That’s good news for students,” said Janet Sortor, MCCS vice president and chief academic officer. “Studies show that students have a much higher success rate if they enroll full-time.”

Daigler noted that there’s a major financial component to be considered as well. “We know our students come from lower income households. A scholarship covering $3,700 in tuition and mandatory fees may not sound like a lot of money, but it represents an incredible opportunity for our students,” he said. “Removing that financial barrier, paired with our commitment to helping them succeed, is a huge step towards helping more Mainers get the education they need for better paying jobs that are in high demand in the current economy.”

The gender breakdown of this fall’s Free College-eligible students also points to the scholarship attracting entirely new populations who would not otherwise have gone to college. Among the Free College-eligible students this fall, men and women are about equally split 50-50. For years, before the pandemic, the gender balance was roughly 60-40, with more women than men enrolled at Maine’s community colleges, a trend seen nationwide. Re-engaging men in post-secondary education is a major educational policy goal that is needed to build our economy.

Fall enrollment figures do not include students enrolled in non-credit courses, including short-term job training programs offered at all seven colleges as part of the MCCS’ Alfond Center for the Advancement of Maine’s Workforce. Short-term workforce training has also been growing exponentially in recent years.

In total, MCCS serves more than 29,000 people a year through a broad range of two-year degree programs, one-year certificate programs, advanced certificates, continuing education, and short-term workforce training courses that take between a few weeks and less than a year to complete.

The Free College Scholarship is funded with a one-time $20 million state allocation. The expansion of short-term training programs is funded through the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan and a grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation.

The average cost of tuition and mandatory fees at Maine’s community colleges is $3,700 a year, the lowest in New England.