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2009 May 3 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Offspring of Unemployed Offered Free Tuition at Maine Colleges

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — The leader of Maine’s community colleges told lawmakers that full-time students who are listed as dependents on their parents’ tax returns will be able to go to school tuition-free if their parents become unemployed.

Maine Community College System President John Fitzsimmons offered no estimate of how many students might benefit from the two-year initiative, which starts in the fall.

 A spokeswoman, Helen Pelletier, said administrators estimated the potential cost was $250,000 over two years, which would not require new legislative budget action.

Addressing the Maine Senate and House of Representatives, Fitzsimmons said the community college system — in which tuition is $2,500 a year — could be one of the state’s most important tools to recover from the recession.

He also asked lawmakers, who are already struggling to balance a new two-year budget, for a state investment of $5.3 million annually to put 1,000 unemployed Maine workers into community college programs.

“Let’s take pressure off of the economy by pulling individuals out of unemployment lines and putting them in college classrooms,” Fitzsimmons said.

Both Fitzsimmons and University of Maine System Chancellor Richard Pattenaude outlined steps they’re taking to control costs during trying economic times. The heads of the two systems deliver their formal reports to lawmakers every two years.

Fitzsimmons said Maine’s community colleges have held tuition increases to 14 percent since 2000 and streamlined operations while limiting growth of their employee base.

Pattenaude also highlighted steps to control costs and said he was cautiously confident about the prospects of the university system, which enrolled more than 44,000 students last year.

He said trustees approved a budget last May that reduced planned spending by $19.1 million and that 150 positions will be eliminated in the current fiscal year.

“Mindful of the fact that the past 10 months do not necessarily forecast the next five years ... I’m reasonably optimistic about the future — knowing of course that there will be bumps in the road as we move ahead,” he said.

Pattenaude said the system needs to reduce expenses or raise revenue at the state’s seven universities by $42.8 million over the next four years.

A task force examining the University of Maine System is expected to submit a list of recommendations that will be folded into a financial plan for trustees to consider.

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