The University of Presque Isle is currently being investigated for alleged discrimination against a transgender man. Credit: Courtesy of the University of Maine at Presque Isle

To Claire Hemphill, it’s as important to graduate from college debt-free as it is to be the first member of her immediate family to attend college.

The 18-year-old from Fort Fairfield started at the University of Maine Presque Isle this fall and is attending for free with the help of a new University of Maine System initiative aimed at lower-income students at four of Maine’s seven public universities.

“If I continue with this program, I’ll be able to graduate college debt-free,” she said. “To be able to avoid debt is a huge opportunity.”

Hemphill is one of 283 first-year University of Maine System students attending college this fall for free with the help of what the university system is calling its promise initiative. The initiative covers the portion of students’ tuition and fees on four of the university system’s seven campuses that aren’t covered by other grants or scholarships they receive. In order to be eligible, students must have qualified for a federal Pell grant.

In addition to Presque Isle, the participating University of Maine System campuses are the University of Maine at Augusta, the University of Maine at Fort Kent and the University of Maine at Machias.

The four campuses have the lowest tuition in the University of Maine System, and that’s what made it possible for the university system to allow some lower-income students there to attend for free, said Dan Demeritt, a University of Maine System spokesman.

“We did not get an infusion of new funds to launch the promise initiative,” he said. “We have been investing more in financial aid and have frozen tuition for six of the last eight years. The gap between costs and available institutional aid for Pell-eligible students at our four lowest-cost campuses shrunk to the point that we could make the strategic commitment to promise tuition- and fee-free attendance.”

Some 292 first-year students at the University of Maine at Augusta qualified for the promise initiative, along with 54 in Fort Kent, 62 in Machias and 69 in Presque Isle. However, not all 477 needed help from the initiative since other aid covered the full cost of tuition and fees for them.

Jonathan Henry, vice president of enrollment management and marketing at the University of Maine at Augusta, said in a statement that the initiative, called the Pine Tree State Pledge at his university, “is boosting enrollment at our institution by making it clear that a four-year public education is affordable and accessible without having to leave your community and move onto a college campus.”

The promise initiative doesn’t cover the cost of room and board.

Hemphill is addressing that uncovered cost by continuing to live at home while she attends college in Presque Isle, where she plans to major in elementary and secondary education. She’ll remain eligible for the promise initiative, called Free for Four on her campus, as long as she takes 15 credits per semester and maintains a 2.5 grade point average. So far, she said, she’s had no trouble keeping up with those requirements.

Ensuring college was affordable for the 477 students participating in the promise initiative played a role in the University of Maine System’s overall enrollment increase this fall, Demeritt said. That 2.5 increase across the system’s seven universities marked a reversal from several years of enrollment declines across the system.

There are 29,735 students total attending in the University of Maine System this fall, up from 28,997 last fall.

The university system saw its student numbers grow, both among in-state and out-of-state students. In-state enrollment grew 2.1 percent, to 23,763 in 2018 from 23,270 in 2017. Out-of-state enrollment grew to an all-time high of 5,972 students, a 4.3 percent increase from last fall.

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