At some point along the way, 18-year-old nursing student Sveta Mudasigwa told herself, “I have to grow up.”
It’s never an easy task — especially when you’re a freshman in college, studying nursing, away from your home for the first time and speaking your third language.
It’s all of the above for Southern Maine Community College’s Mudasigwa, who made the journey from her home country of Rwanda to Maine in September. But becoming a pediatric nurse is what she wants to do, and she’s now on that path in South Portland, practicing her nursing skills while working toward associate and bachelor’s degrees.
And she’s got some support. Thanks to an outside-the-box solution, Mudasigwa and almost 6,000 other students in the state are receiving a financial buffer to attend any of Maine’s two-year colleges, allowing them to focus on their education without needing to worry about tuition.
Statewide during the pandemic, many students took a step back from higher education, causing a decline in enrollments in both two-year and four-year colleges. The decline affected community colleges the most in Maine.
The state’s solution was the Free College Scholarship program, intended to support students whose educations were disrupted by the pandemic. The program gives students who’ve graduated high school between 2020 and this summer (2023) the opportunity to attend any of the seven two-year colleges in Maine with no cost of tuition.
Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, first announced the program during her State of the State Address in Feb. 2022, in order to give students the chance to “graduate unburdened by debt and ready to enter the workforce,” she said. President Joe Biden made a push for two years of free college in 2021 in his American Families Plan, which was eventually stripped from the federal Build Back Better bill.
Free community college is available in some form in over half of U.S. states, though often with eligibility stipulations that require students to have attended high school in the state.
According to a National Student Clearinghouse survey updated on Feb. 2, enrollment in Maine’s Community College System (MCCS) was 17,104 in 2019. MCCS Enrollment took its biggest hit in 2021 when it dropped below 15,000, a 5.5-percent decline from the previous year — but 2022 showed a 14-percent recovery, almost matching the pre-pandemic figures, with 17,054 students enrolled. Updated enrollment figures are expected to be released March 15, according to a spokesperson for the MCCS.
The Free College Scholarship program has been a key part of the enrollment resurgence. And for many students, it’s made the leap to college — already an anxious one — a lot easier.
What was a scary and huge adjustment a few months ago has become more comfortable, Mudasigwa told the Phoenix. She built up some nursing skills during a gap-year internship in Rwanda, but it was time to get back to school.
“Being homesick and being a new college student, I don’t know how I did it,” Mudasigwa said. “I miss home, but we’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do.”
At a revitalized SMCC campus, she’s hardly alone.
VIBES ARE BACK
Students were out and about at the community college’s South Portland campus during an uncharacteristically warm February day, and the vibe was pleasant.
The college “took it on the chin” during the pandemic, said SMCC President Joe Cassidy, with student body enrollment down 20 percent. But this year, the signs are finally showing that a rebound has arrived.
One sign is that parking lot capacity challenges have returned, along with familiar but minor pre-pandemic scheduling issues.
“These are issues we’re completely welcoming, because it means we’re full of people,” Cassidy said.. “It feels vibrant again in a way that it hadn’t in a couple years.”
The college isn’t quite back to its pre-pandemic enrollment levels, Cassidy hopes that it will be in the next year.
It’s no doubt that the free-tuition program has played a part in that rebound, and in “raising [SMCC’s] profile,” said Cassidy, who grew up in Maine. For him, it’s a priority to ensure that there are higher education options in-state, and he’s heard from students who’ve said that without the free-tuition opportunity, they were planning to go elsewhere if they attended college at all.
That’s how it shaped up for freshman basketball players Jaylyn Bartolome and Jasmine Aloisio, who chose SMCC after graduating from Sanford and Marshwood high schools. For both, SMCC was a welcome curve in their post high school trajectory — and admittedly, wasn’t even on their radar at the beginning.
The free-tuition program “allowed me to just…keep going, whereas most people wouldn’t have,” Bartolome said. A first-generation college student, Bartolome said she wouldn’t have been able to afford going to college at all if she’d wanted to attend a larger university. “SMCC wasn’t even on my mind — I was like ‘you know what, why not?’ And then the free college tuition [program] came out and everything fell into place.”
Aloisio had her sights set on Hartford University, a state school in Connecticut, but tuition had increased there before the start of this school year, to over $42,000 per year. Instead, Aloisio picked the more cost-effective option, which also allowed her to keep playing basketball.
She feels there is a stigma around attending community college, while going to bigger, four-year universities is a more widely accepted norm.
“That’s why I felt like Hartford was kind of my only option,” Aloisio said.
Now studying radiography, Aloisio believes she’s getting the education she needs to have a job guaranteed when she graduates, citing an opportunity to do clinicals with the college’s partnership with Maine Medical Center.
“I’m getting the same outcome I would at any other college, if not better, with less debt — so I’ll be going out [into the world] with less debt and more comfort,” Aloisio said.
KEEPING BARRIERS LOW
The program could stick around even longer. Gov. Mills’ budget proposal is set to offer the program for two more years, using $15 million in state funding, making it available to students who will graduate high school in 2024 and 2025.
Community colleges will continue to play an important role in encouraging Maine students to pursue higher education. SMCC, like two-year colleges statewide, has partnered with nearby universities like the University of Southern Maine to make the transition between the schools as seamless as possible.
Encouraging that transition is especially important because Maine wants to fend off a trend of declining college student enrollment. Maine’s high school population and its graduation class has been getting smaller each year, according to Meaghan Arena, vice president of Enrollment, Marketing and Student Retention at USM, which is a trend that’s been ongoing even prior to the pandemic.
“We’re also seeing more and more students in Maine opt to enter the workforce rather than higher education, so that’s a challenge for us,” Arena said. “The shortage of students is expected to continue into the foreseeable future.”
From USM’s standpoint, that means it’s even more important to attract transfer students, working adult students and graduate students — all of which could come from community colleges.
SMCC and USM have built their partnership over the years to create a smooth pipeline between the two schools. The schools share many similarities in programming, plus overlap in academic advising and career services, Arena explained.
Despite the apparent student shortage, plenty of Maine students, like Bartolome and Aloisio, are taking the plunge into higher education — and the free college scholarship is a key part of that pull to community colleges.
For Mudasigwa, the free tuition came as a surprise after she had already made the decision to attend. But her story is just one path for how Maine can compensate for its lack of students, by bringing in bright young minds from elsewhere and offering them a foundation to build their education.
That way, Mudasigwa and many others can focus on their early college careers without the burden of tuition weighing on them. It also helps her follow her mantra.
“School is school,” she said. “I have to do it, and I have to do it well.”