PORTLAND, Maine — A scholarship program aimed at giving every Maine newborn a $500 college savings down payment will begin automatically enrolling babies, ensuring that the money is available to all of the 12,000 or so children born each year in the state, officials said Thursday.
Automatic enrollment means that parents will no longer be required to set up a NextGen College Investing Fund by a baby’s first birthday to receive the money, said the foundation, which was started by the late Harold Alfond, founder of the Dexter Shoe Co.
Parents will receive quarterly updates on the growth of the investment, which will become available when a child turns 18. The money can be used for any accredited program, whether it is a four-year college or university or other educational program such as a beauty school, culinary program, or welding program.
Colleen Quint, chief executive of the Alfond Scholarship Foundation, said 10 major employers including Bath Iron Works and Cianbro have agreed to offer payroll withholdings or matching contributions or both to help bolster the funds. Left alone, the $500 grant is expected to grow to several thousand dollars.
‘‘We don’t have any illusion that it will fund someone’s entire education, but it’s an important first step,’’ Quint said.
Since 2009, the scholarship foundation has provided nearly $11.5 million to fund nearly 23,000 grants. Going forward, the foundation hopes to spend $6 million every year on the expanded program.
The announcement was made in Portland on what would have been the 100th birthday of Alfond. The Harold Alfond Foundation has $727 million in assets.
The college education fund started as a pilot program and expanded statewide in 2009 to become the first of its type in the nation.
It had shortcomings, however, that prevented more babies from being signed up: Parents were required to enroll their babies in a NextGen fund administered by the Finance Authority of Maine.
Signing up was complicated despite efforts by Merrill Lynch to streamline the process, and many parents missed the deadline, Quint said.
‘‘Some of us were a few years removed from having a baby in the house, so we forgot how crazy it is to have a baby during that first year,’’ she joked.
Governor Paul LePage, a Republican who has battled in Augusta with Senate President Justin Alfond, a Democrat, had kind words for the scholarship program that bears the name of Alfond’s grandfather. The governor spoke about the importance of removing financial barriers to higher education in Maine.
LePage was homeless as a youth, but was taken in by others who helped him attend what’s now Husson University, allowing him to embark on a successful career in business before becoming governor.
‘‘Education is what saved my life, and I want every Maine child to have the opportunity to succeed,’’ LePage said.