Bills to Watch: Permanent Free Community College (LD 18)
LD 18, sponsored by Rep. Will Bridgeo (D-Augusta), “An Act to Provide Ongoing Funding for up to 2 Years of Community College for Certain Maine Students,” would make Governor Mills’ plan to provide free two-year community college permanent in the state budget by providing eligible students a tuition waiver. Bridgeo is a former Augusta city manager who retired from that job in 2021.
Similar to the provision in Gov. Mills’ 2022 supplemental budget, signed last April, LD 18 does not specify that a student need to have graduated from a Maine high school, or have lived in Maine prior to enrolling in a two-year community college program, in order to be eligible for the benefit. It only requires that the student be enrolled full-time, pursue a two-year degree program, accept all available government grants and scholarships, and live in Maine “at the time of enrollment…and for the duration of that enrollment.” The bill does not require a student graduate from the program in which they enrolled, or remain in Maine after graduation to receive the benefit.
While these provisions may be purposeful, it could allow for rampant misuse of taxpayer funds.
The Maine Community College System (MCCCS) noted in October 2022 that enrollment in its programs increased 12% from the prior year, before the tuition benefit was offered. It also reported that “first-time student enrollment is up 28 percent from last year.”
The bill would allocate $20 million in each of the next fiscal years to fund this tuition benefit, the same price tag as Gov. Mills’ proposal.
One-third of MCCS Fall 2022 enrollees are eligible for the free tuition benefit because they graduated from high school or earned an equivalent diploma in 2020, 2021 or 2022.
Turns out, if you offer people free stuff, they will take it.
Is this benefit truly needed in today’s economy? Maine needs workers, not more students. Yes, these students will eventually enter the workforce, but possibly two years later than they would have otherwise. In those cases, employers suffer. There’s also no requirement they remain in Maine upon graduation.
In addition to the latest round of direct checks to Mainers from the most recent spending package signed by Gov. Mills in early January, the extension of this benefit into the next budget cycle would set up a pattern in which future waves of youth expect to receive more free stuff from the state.
Many of the students looking to earn a two-year degree do so in order to be prepared for the workforce. But, there are many fields in which one need not have a degree beyond a high school diploma to succeed in today’s economy. In many ways, jumping right into the workforce, to not only earn money, but to build a skillset, can be more beneficial to recent high school graduates than to spend the next two years in a community college program.
A question equally as important: is it a proper use of state power to take money from the people to pay for free community college for anybody who enrolls in the state? As MCCS notes, “The average cost of tuition and mandatory fees at Maine’s community colleges is $3,700 a year, the lowest in New England.” Given this fact, is it worth it to offer free community college tuition to any high school graduate from around the country (or world) to attend the least expensive on average?