The University of Maine System is trying to get into your head.

Television commercials, radio spots and newspaper ads started running this fall as part of a $2 million initiative aimed at reversing a decline in enrollment that stands in stark contrast to national figures.

In the past decade, enrollment at the system’s seven schools has shrunk by about 3,000 students — a drop of nearly 9 percent.

Over the same period, enrollment in the nation’s public four-year universities has risen about 20 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

UMaine System officials don’t point to any one reason for the decline, but note that competition from Maine’s community college system has been a factor. As University of Maine enrollment figures started shrinking 10 years ago, those at the state’s community college system began to skyrocket — up 83 percent since 2002.

An even bigger factor came into play this fall, when a decline in Maine high school graduates contributed to a big drop in the 2011 freshman class — 900 fewer students entering the UMaine System than the previous fall.

National experts say college enrollment numbers are shrinking throughout the Northeast, where the number of high school graduates is dropping faster than any other region of the country.

“We’ve been worried for a while,” said Rosa Redonnett, executive director of student affairs for the UMaine System.

In response, the system has developed a new four-year strategic plan to attract students by adding online programs, easing the transfer process and marketing more aggressively.

The goal is to increase new-student enrollment by 6 percent by the fall of 2015.

ENROLLMENT REVERSAL

Previously, recruitment strategies have been “reasonably low-key,” said UMaine System Chancellor Richard Pattenaude. Now stiffer competition has necessitated a new plan.

“We’ve had to up our game,” he said.

The system hired national college consulting firm Noel-Levitz in 2010 to research its enrollment trends.

The study concluded that if the university system didn’t change its strategy, it could expect a 6 percent to 15 percent drop in new-student enrollment over the next decade.

“It’s just the sheer weight of the demographic shift,” said Kevin Crockett, president and CEO of Noel-Levitz, which is based in Colorado and Iowa.

The loss of tuition from the enrollment decline has already contributed to the system’s budget woes and the elimination of 400 positions from 2007 to 2010.

Unless the trend is reversed, the system can expect more of the same, Pattenaude said. But he doesn’t expect the trend to continue.

“We’re pretty confident we’re going to see an increase,” he said.

‘A COMPLICATED STEW’

Enrollment in the university system peaked at 34,475 students in 2003, the same year the state’s technical colleges became community colleges.

Pattenaude attributes the initial decline in the university system’s enrollment to the expansion of the community college system.

This fall, however, the UMaine System started facing a bigger problem.

“Like a lot of New England, Maine is suffering from a pretty challenging demographic outlook,” said Crockett.

Nationally, the number of high school graduates recently started to stagnate, according to the 2008 study “Knocking on the College Door,” published by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. But the picture is different in every part of the country. While the number of graduates is booming in Southern states, the Northeast is at the other extreme.

The number of Maine high school graduates began to decline last year, said Redonnett, and that coincided with the university system’s biggest one-year drop — 900 students — since enrollment began to drop in 2003.

The Maine Department of Education did not have graduate totals from last spring.

Looking at the class sizes of future high school graduates doesn’t offer much hope for change, as they get smaller by an average of 1.7 percent each year through the class of 2020, this year’s fourth-graders, according to figures from the Education Department.

As that pool of prospective students contracts, the universities will be able to increase enrollment only by attracting a larger percentage of Maine graduates or finding new sources elsewhere.

The plan calls for both.

“The problem with enrollment is that you can’t look at one single thing and say, ‘That’s the cause,’ ” said Redonnett. “It’s really a complicated stew.”

THE NEW GAME PLAN

Each university has developed a plan that makes sense for its campus.

University of Maine Admissions Director Sharon Oliver has made sure the Orono school is listed in national online directories to attract more out-of-state students. Prospective students can easily get information about the flagship campus, and admissions staff has upgraded its website, added student blogs and started marketing through social media.

“We’re doing ‘follow us on Twitter’ kinds of things,” Oliver said.

Similar efforts have already offset declines in in-state enrollment. During the past 10 years, the University of Maine’s total enrollment has risen and fallen, and is now almost exactly the same as it was in 2002. At that time, 20 percent of students came from out of state. This year, out-of-staters make up 25 percent of the student body.

The University of Southern Maine, on the other hand, is intensifying its in-state recruitment efforts to become the first choice for more local students.

“USM is in the unenviable position of being in the most competitive market in Maine,” said Redonnett, listing St. Joseph’s College, Kaplan University and Southern New Hampshire University among its competitors.

That’s why officials believe USM has experienced one of the steepest enrollment declines in the system — more than 18 percent since 2002.

“We recognize that this must be reversed, and we’re working hard to do that,” said USM President Selma Botman.

The school is tackling the problem on several fronts, Botman said. To attract working adults, USM has adjusted schedules and added more online classes. To lower costs, the school just pumped an additional $1 million into its financial aid program, which will translate into scholarships for 83 current high school seniors. To make the most of admissions staff time, the office is focusing its high school recruitment efforts on schools that already send students to USM.

Each campus will also benefit from the UMaine System’s revamped enrollment strategies, which range from lofty goals, such as working with state organizations to improve the high school graduation rate, to concrete changes that are coming soon.

For example, starting next fall, applicants who are denied admission at one University of Maine school will be automatically considered at other schools within the system without having to reapply.

For students attending one of Maine’s community colleges, a new website, along with advisory boards and on-campus counselors, will attempt to smooth the process of transitioning into the university system and try to attract more baccalaureate candidates. Currently, 12 percent of Maine community college students transfer into the state university system. The four-year goal is to increase that figure to 15 percent.

Collaboration among state high schools, community colleges and the University of Maine is a focus of the Legislature’s Education Committee, said Chairman Brian Langley, a Republican state senator from Ellsworth.

Enrollment within the university system is part of it, he said, but the committee is more interested in increasing the number of Maine residents pursuing and completing any post-secondary degree.

“We’re looking at trying to fit all the parts and pieces together for Maine students … and get them to the other side,” Langley said.

BROADER IMPLICATIONS

Although the UMaine System needs to start growing enrollment to balance its budget, there are broader economic implications, too.

“Maine needs an educated work force to compete in the 21st century,” said Chancellor Pattenaude.

That’s been the rallying cry of Gov. Paul LePage, who didn’t propose cuts to higher education in this two-year budget.

By 2018, 59 percent of jobs in Maine will require a post-secondary degree, but fewer than half the state’s adults are projected to have an associate degree or higher, according to a Georgetown University study.

Pattenaude, who is stepping down in June, acknowledges the role of public universities in closing that gap.

“It’s very important that the university (system) expands its reach,” he said.

Part of the challenge is convincing Maine residents that a bachelor’s degree is worth the investment, especially when community college courses are a fraction of the cost.

Maine Community College System spokeswoman Helen Pelletier said the state universities aren’t in direct competition with the two-year schools, which offer different programs and largely market to residents who wouldn’t go to college at all otherwise.

University system officials, however, believe there’s a correlation between enrollment going up at the community colleges and going down at the four-year universities.

The Noel-Levitz study compared the two systems’ market shares of college-bound Maine high school graduates. The state universities consistently enrolled a third of those students through 2008. That figure dropped to 29 percent by 2010.

The proportion of those students enrolling in community colleges nearly doubled from 2000 to 2010, from 11 percent to 21 percent.

Maureen Salisbury, guidance director at Deering High School in Portland, has witnessed the shift first hand.

She’s seen an increasing number of students choose Southern Maine Community College over the University of Southern Maine, because community college is cheaper, she said.

“When it comes right down to it and you have to send the deposit and you have to send the first check, that’s tough,” said Salisbury.

That’s especially true for the students who plan to commute from their parents’ houses, she said. “They don’t see a difference between the two schools.”

Many of them plan to transfer after getting an associate’s degree, said Salisbury. But university officials know that doesn’t always happen.

“The research shows that students that start at baccalaureate campuses have a better chance (of graduating),” said USM President Botman.

Making the public more aware of the benefits of a bachelor’s degree is part of the university system’s enrollment plan. That’s where the marketing campaign comes in.

One of the five print ads that will run in six local newspapers through March cites the figures from the Georgetown study about the gap between education and the skills needed in the job force.

“Refuse to be a statistic,” it reads.

Another ad boasts that graduates with four-year degrees will earn $1 million more over their working lives than those with high school diplomas.

Those messages aren’t just meant as gimmicks to garner tuition dollars, according to Michelle Hood, chair of the University of Maine System’s board of trustees.

“It matters because individuals who do not pursue higher education do not have as many options for themselves and their families going forward,” she said.

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

lbridgers@pressherald.com