Maine has decided to convert its technical colleges into community colleges through enactment of fast-track, bipartisan legislation that state leaders hope will nudge more students into higher education.
Gov. John E. Baldacci signed the legislation, which was part of a $3 billion biennial budget bill for the state, on March 31. The bill will allot $1 million in the first year for the conversion of the seven campuses, the first installment of a seven-year, $18 million plan.
Although famous for its resort areas, the rural New England state has many impoverished areas, and school officials have struggled to persuade students to continue their educations past high school.
As community colleges, the schools are to offer broadened curriculum choices, including a range of core college classes and electives, in addition to the specialized training for vocational careers that is characteristic of technical colleges.
Maine has the nation’s highest rate of high school completion, 94.5 percent, compared with a national average of 86.5 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. But only 57 percent of Maine’s graduates go on to higher education, compared with about 60 percent nationally and even higher percentages in wealthier New England states, state officials say. Furthermore, many students who do pursue four-year degrees leave the state and do not return.
Now, state and business leaders say Maine must foster a better-educated population and workforce to help bolster its sagging economy.
“This is an economic-development as well as an educational resource,” Gov. Baldacci, a Democrat who took office in January, said in an interview last week.
Given the state’s financial problems, he said, “we may not be able to take a giant leap, but are taking several steps forward. And we are going to get there because it’s in the state’s best interest.”
Mr. Baldacci is particularly interested in filling health-care jobs and attracting new biotechnology companies to the state.
Many high school graduates in the state don’t have enough money or career direction to pursue technical careers or four-year degrees, officials say.
“The community college is a missing link in Maine’s higher education landscape,” said John Fitzsimmons, the president of the state’s technical- college system. “Having a low-cost entry point is essential to getting people started.”
Four years ago, the technical colleges began offering an Associate of Arts program that includes basic courses that can be transferred to four- year institutions. That quickly became the most popular set of course offerings. Now, about 42 percent of the system’s 6,500 students take those courses.
State officials hope that the seven community colleges and their satellite campuses will accommodate 11,000 students by 2010.
In the state’s evolving economy, it’s becoming crucial for working adults to go back to school to change careers, said Alice Kirkpatrick, a spokeswoman for the technical-college system. But without a full-fledged system of community colleges, most of those residents have been unable to do so without moving away from their hometowns.
While most of the technical- college students attended classes full time, Ms. Kirkpatrick believes the community college system will attract many more part-time and older students.
The first steps in building the new system will be hiring more counselors and support-staff members to help students plan their careers, and marketing the new option to potential students.
The new community colleges will have open-admissions policies and work with the state’s adult education department to provide remedial classes to students who may not be ready for college-level coursework.
“Assuming the mission of community colleges means that we’ll be servicing a much more diverse community,” said Ms. Kirkpatrick. “We’ll see more students coming in with a variety of academic levels, and many more coming part time and needing flexible schedules.”
In July, all the technical colleges will formally change their names, although the conversion was official as soon as Gov. Baldacci signed the bill.
In coming years, the community colleges intend to expand their course offerings, hire more faculty members for new programs, renovate and expand buildings, and install new technology and equipment.
The bill was noteworthy for the breadth of its support and the relative speed with which it passed. After education officials had spent years planning for a community college system, Gov. Baldacci promised such a system during his gubernatorial campaign last fall, as part of a larger pre-K-16 system. The legislation became a top priority for both major political parties this spring.
Usually, Maine legislative measures have only up to 10 sponsors, but Senate President Beverly C. Daggett, the bill’s lead sponsor, allowed 117 bipartisan co-sponsors on this one.
“I absolutely believe this is landmark legislation that will break down barriers to college for thousands of Maine citizens, and help increase college attainment among our high school graduates and working adults,” Ms. Daggett said at the signing ceremony.
Given the state’s economic downturn and resulting fiscal troubles, it was remarkable that the $1 million was allotted this year, said Mr. Fitzsimmons. He added that the community colleges were the only new program the state provided funding for this year.