PORTLAND – A challenging economy and the state’s declining number of high school graduates are two strikes against the University of Maine System, whose preliminary fall enrollment is off by almost 3 percent from a year ago.

At the University of Southern Maine, preliminary figures show a drop of more than 8 percent, as many as 782 students, officials said Tuesday.

Systemwide, the state universities have 30,096 students, about 900 fewer than last fall’s final enrollment of 31,000 – a 2.95 percent decline.

That’s far better than nationwide figures released this month for 2012, showing the largest year-over-year decline in college attendance since the U.S. Census Bureau began estimating enrollment in 1955.

Even with the decline in the University of Maine System, the numbers show that recruiting efforts at all seven campuses are paying off, said Rosa Redonnett, who oversees the system’s enrollment and student retention.

“I think we’ll be a little bit down, (but) at the end of the day it was way better than I was expecting,” said Redonnett, executive director of student affairs.

That’s largely because there are fewer Maine high school graduates. In 2008, there were more than 14,000. In 2012, the number was 13,042. And by 2020, the figure is expected to be around 12,000, Redonnett said.

“Right away, you have this freight train rolling toward you with declining demographics,” she said. “It’s pretty stunning.”

At the same time, the struggling economy has led many students to put off college or get jobs first, she said. That’s one reason the university system hasn’t raised tuition in the past two years, hoping to make school more affordable.

For a full-time undergraduate student, tuition and fees for 2013-14 at Maine’s state universities range from $7,300 at the Presque Isle school to $10,600 at the flagship university in Orono.

Nationwide, census data show that college enrollment in the fall of 2012 was down by 467,000 from a year earlier. It was the reverse of what the Census Bureau observed previously, with the number of college students increasing by 3.2 million from 2006 to 2011.

The drop last year was due largely to a decline in the number of students 25 or older, which fell by 419,000. Enrollment for younger students decreased by 48,000.

The university system’s seven campuses had a 4.9 percent decline in enrollment from 2008 to 2012, the most recent fall semester for which final enrollment figures are available.

USM had a 6.2 percent decline during that period, from 10,009 to 9,385. The campus in Orono had a 7.8 percent decline, from 11,818 to 10,901.

This fall’s enrollment figures could go up, officials said. Last year, USM alone added more than 300 students in the weeks before the final figures were released, in mid-October. Its preliminary fall enrollment is now 8,603.

Redonnett said each campus uses its own approach to increasing enrollment, and each faces its own challenges in attracting and retaining students.

USM faces the most direct competition, she said. In addition to Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, USM competes with the University of New England in Biddeford, Husson University in South Portland, Southern New Hampshire University in Brunswick, Kaplan University in Portland and several other colleges in southern Maine.

“There isn’t a campus in this system that hasn’t increased its efforts,” Redonnett said. “They’re doing more direct outreach, more direct calling campaigns, increased scholarships. All of those are pieces you try to put in place. On the retention side, they’re doing more internal programming on campus and putting a lot of time and energy and talent into beefing up student success.”

USM spokesman Robert Caswell said the declining enrollment’s impact on the school’s $139 million annual budget remains to be seen, depending not just on the final fall numbers, but also on enrollment next spring and summer.

He said the enrollment declines so far have been spread fairly evenly among many majors and there hasn’t been a significant impact on the campus or course offerings.

Nasim Arborio, a junior at USM who is pursuing an accounting degree, said she had trouble getting into classes because they were all full.

“I’m taking two night classes. Who wants to be in classes at 9 o’clock at night?” said Arborio, 36, as she left a pre-calculus class Tuesday.

Her instructor agreed.

“This year, my classes are larger,” said John Moffitt, a professor who has taught at USM for 13 years.

But signs of fewer students are evident in the dormitories on USM’s Gorham campus, said sophomore Curtis Willard, who lived there last year.

“We had quite a few empty dorm rooms,” Willard said.

USM officials said dorm occupancy rates have been fairly steady, with 1,160 of the 1,256 spaces filled this fall, a slight drop from 1,178 last fall.

Caswell said USM has been increasing its undergraduate recruiting in recent years.

“We’re visiting more high schools than ever, including every public high school in Maine, and also ramping up our efforts out of state in New Hampshire, New York and into New Jersey,” he said.

USM is also doing more outreach on social media, and marketing not just to high school graduates, but to specific audiences such as working adults or people who have some college credits but no degrees.

USM also has added merit-based scholarships to its aid package, providing $1 million a year, said Susan Campbell, chief student success officer.

“Historically, aid has been needs-based, so this is a real shift in direction,” she said.

Within USM, there are some enrollment trends, Campbell said. Arts, some humanities majors and social sciences have fewer students, while sports management, hospitality and tourism programs are adding students.

According to the university’s data, total enrollment in arts programs declined from 477 students in 2009 to 389 in 2012; total enrollment in humanities was up during the same period, but enrollment in some degree programs, such as English and history, dropped.

USM is seeing a decline in transfer students, Campbell said, likely because other colleges also are working to improve their retention rates.

Declining enrollments reduce tuition revenue but have no impact on any federal or state funding, officials said.

President Obama has proposed a broad new government rating system that would judge colleges on their affordability and perhaps be used to allocate federal financial aid. Maine college administrators, students and lawmakers have largely praised the plan.

The rating system could be adopted through executive action, but linking colleges’ federal aid to those ratings would need congressional approval.

According to the administration, tuition at public, four-year universities has tripled over the past 30 years, and the average student loan debt stands at $26,000.

The average student loan debt in Maine in 2011 was $26,046, according to a report by the Project on Student Debt.

 

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com