The 2025 enrollment cliff forecast for years began more than a decade ago in Maine, where the number of high school graduates has been on a steady decline.
At the University of Maine, we have addressed these challenges by focusing on making college affordable for both in-state and out-of-state students, as well as by truly welcoming prospective applicants — and letting them know we care about their growth and development as individuals and their overall well-being.
However, while we have stemmed the decline in our enrollment over the last decade, the challenges we face in recruiting and retaining students are even more pronounced today.
These challenges are not unique to Maine. In the last two years, 1.4 million fewer students across the U.S. have decided to continue on with their studies than previously. While the pandemic has likely played a role in accelerating this decline, the phenomenon precedes it.
A number of surveys in recent years found that half the adults in the U.S. believe higher education is not worth the cost. Soaring college student debt and states’ decreasing investment in higher education over the last several decades have contributed to the declining number of college students.
During the pandemic, increasing rates of mental health issues have been identified as another driver in students’ stopping out.
Transformative educational experiences help build a sense of belonging, agency and purpose, and are essential to meeting the challenges of recruiting and retaining students.
Some of Maine’s challenges are specific to its economy and demography. Maine has the third-lowest birth rate in the country, while New England, where Maine universities primarily recruit for out-of-state students, has the lowest regional birth rate in the country. Maine’s low birth rate, coupled with it being the state with the highest median age, assures continued challenges in enrollment into the future.
Maine is one of the top ten states in the percentage of its students graduating from high school, but, paradoxically, it is often in the bottom ten in the percentage of high school graduates that go on to postsecondary education.
Before the pandemic, 62 percent of Maine high school graduates enrolled in college the fall immediately after high school. That figure fell to 54 percent in 2021, meaning that about one in two high school graduates in Maine did not go on to postsecondary education.
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The enrollment challenges for Maine’s four-year public universities were compounded in spring 2022, when Maine offered recent high school graduates in the state free community college for the next two years, with a goal of helping students whose aspirations for postsecondary education were negatively impacted by the pandemic.
As hoped, community college enrollment soared, which in turn contributed to a decline in the yield of in-state prospective students at all seven of the University of Maine System’s public universities. While community college can be an affordable pathway into a four-year university for many students, it will be important and incumbent upon all of us at the state’s four-year colleges to work with our community college partners to ensure that this pathway is seamless.
Student retention can be a challenge at community colleges, just as it often is at four-year colleges and universities with high acceptance rates. We’ll now have to work together to make sure students have the tools to be successful in their community college experience and in their transition to a four-year institution.
Making sure college remains affordable is vital, but so are keeping a deliberative focus on a students’ overall well-being and expanding the narrative that earning a college degree is essential for socioeconomic mobility.
Students who felt emotionally supported during their studies and participated in authentic experiential learning experiences — who had opportunities to apply what they learned in the classroom — were two times more likely to be engaged and thriving in their work (and enjoy a higher level of well-being) many years later, research has shown.
Such transformative educational experiences help build a sense of belonging, agency and purpose, and are essential to meeting the challenges of recruiting and retaining students. That’s why, at the University of Maine, we recently began offering Research Learning Experiences to all first-year students. In this program, students pursue research-based learning during a bridge week prior to entering their first semester.
For many students, this is their first encounter with research, and having the experience in a group helps foster a sense of community and belonging. Immediately afterward, they take a research-learning course meant to foster strong mentor relationships with faculty.
Such courses are then connected with more advanced research experiences later in the students’ college careers as well as with a new pathways to careers initiative, which includes a recently funded Rural Career Pathway Center. The Center will increase student access to paid internships across all 16 counties in Maine, building on existing employer partnerships and programs while creating new ones in underserved rural regions. These pathways are accessible not only to traditional students, but to adult learners as well.
Meeting enrollment challenges in Maine means making college affordable and accessible, and providing life transformative educational opportunities from the start of every student’s journey. Making these transformative educational experiences available to all students throughout their college careers — essentially democratizing what honors students experience — is a key way in which we are meeting enrollment challenges in Maine.
John Volin is executive vice president for Academic Affairs and provost at the University of Maine.
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