AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Community College System has grown so much in recent years — 83 percent since 2003 — that it is having to turn away many qualified applicants.
“Obviously it’s good news that in tough times we continue to expand,” the system’s president, John Fitzsimmons, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “To me, the cloud over the good news is that we’re turning away thousands of good students who want to come in.”
Fitzsimmons said that 84 occupational programs offered by the seven colleges are at or over capacity this fall.
“You’ll find construction, machine tools, culinary arts, among others, are oversubscribed,” said Fitzsimmons, who has served as president for 22 years.
One program is always packed.
“All health care programs are always oversubscribed. You have a two- to three-year wait. That’s a given,” he said.
Lawrence Barrett, president of Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, said all but one of the technical programs at his school are full.
“We have 1,100 seats on a wait list,” said Barrett, noting that EMCC has had enrollment growth of 5.8 percent since last year, the second highest in the state. “We’re trying to utilize any space on campus.”
Fitzsimmons said occupational programs make up 70 percent of the curriculum at the community colleges and liberal studies account for the remaining 30 percent.
Overall, the Maine Community College System grew 4.3 percent from last year. Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield grew the most, 6.5 percent. After Eastern Maine Community College, the third highest was Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, which grew 5.3 percent. It was followed by Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, 3.9 percent; and Central Maine Community College in Auburn and York County Community College in Wells, both 1.4 percent. Washington County Community College in Calais saw the smalled increase, 0.6 percent.
In the fall of 2002, when each college still was called a technical college, enrollment was at 10,127. This fall, enrollment is 18,548.
That amounts to 1.5 percent of Mainers enrolled in the community college system, far below the 3 percent national average, said Fitzsimmons.
“We believe we’ve only scratched the surface of what this system is capable of,” he said. “We think we’re capable of 30,000 [students].”
Fitzsimmons said there are enough students to meet that number, it’s just a matter of providing the faculty.
“Maine [politicians] always talk about aspiration issues. Maine doesn’t have an aspiration issue. It has a capacity problem,” he said.
He said the dream of trustees and campus presidents is to have 25,000 students enrolled in five to six years.
“It’s very aggressive, but that’s what we’re hoping to do,” said Fitzsimmons.
Funding has been the biggest roadblock to expansion. The Maine Community College System receives money from the state. Because of budget cuts, that check has shrunk.
“The revenues [from tuition] represent about 28 percent of our overall budget,” Fitzsimmons said. “You can’t expand on occupational programs without some level of support from the state in order to hire the faculty.”
In effect, Fitzsimmons said. the state provided a subsidy of $4,100 per student in 2002. This year it’s $3,000.
“I don’t see anything on the horizon [for expansion] because the state funding is still in bad shape,” he said.
Because of high unemployment and the poor economy, the cheaper costs of Maine’s community colleges are attractive to many.
“We have the lowest tuition in New England,” said Fitzsimmons. “We’ve done a good job with keeping tuition down to allow people to have an affordable option. The state revenue hasn’t been able to keep up.”
He said tuition and fees average about $3,200 a year at the community colleges. For students needing room and board, the cost is between $4,500 to $6,000 per year. Fitzsimmons said that only about 1,250 of the 18,500 students reside at the schools.
Because many jobs now require secondary education, Fitzsimmons is worried many Mainers may fall behind.
“Maine people have a tremendous work ethic. They see where the future is and they’re trying to better themselves,” he said.
He’s hopeful that the colleges will continue to expand to meet the needs of Maine students.
“We are on the downside of the economy. It will turn, and we want to be ready when it does,” said Fitzsimmons.