Despite a $1 million ad campaign that was launched in February to boost enrollment, the number of undergraduates applying to the University of Southern Maine is down 10 percent from last year at this time.

“Obviously you wish the numbers were a little better, but we’re showing improvements,” noted incoming President Harvey Kesselman, who said the university is narrowing the gap between last year’s applications and this year’s as the ad campaign progresses.

Both the ads and $1 million in extra scholarship money are one-time efforts that are being paid for with money saved through faculty layoffs and retirements, according to USM spokesman Chris Quint.

Currently, undergraduate applications at the school are down 10 percent, with 3,809 applications compared to 4,249 last year, according to data collected as of Monday. Admissions are down 12 percent and new enrollment for 2015 is down 41 percent compared to last year.

Graduate student applications and admissions are both down 10 percent, but enrollment is up 4 percent, to 49 students from 47, according to the report.

USM economics professor Susan Feiner, who has sharply criticized recent cuts made in USM’s faculty, said that while the school clearly needs to recruit more students, those students care about academic quality as much as their pocketbooks.

“(If the) administration believes they can simultaneously gut the academic programs and get more students to attend, (that) is magical thinking,” Feiner wrote in an email Thursday.

LOWER ENROLLMENT EXPECTED THIS YEAR

USM saved $4 million in salary costs by eliminating 51 faculty positions halfway through the year, officials said.

Of that, $1 million is being offered as one-time scholarship money, and the other $1 million is being used for the ads on television, radio, Hulu and various online sites.

Normally, USM spends $400,000 a year on marketing, which is largely spent online, with Google banner ads and social media, Quint said.

USM has been rocked in recent years by a series of financial shortfalls, student and faculty protests over cuts and a string of temporary presidents. Officials have pointed to declining enrollment as a major factor in their budget woes.

Last fall, interim USM President David Flanagan cut five academic programs and eliminated the 51 faculty positions to help close a $16 million budget gap. Even with those cuts, Flanagan plans to use $1.6 million in campus reserves to balance USM’s $127 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Kesselman starts at USM on July 1.

At this week’s system board of trustees meeting, Flanagan noted the new ad campaign, but downplayed the potential impact.

“In reality, we expect (enrollment) to be down despite the advertising and scholarship money,” he said Monday.

USM’s fall 2014 enrollment was down 5.5 percent over the previous year, to 8,428 students. That’s a 13 percent drop since fall 2010.

The ad campaign was built to highlight the new scholarship money, and intended for the higher-profile television and radio markets. The ads themselves are spare and simple, with no photography or people, just large block letters in blue and gold and a tagline saying, “USM: Find yourself here.”

“We have to get our enrollment up. That is priority number one,” Quint said.

Kesselman didn’t expect enrollment to be up this coming fall, but thought it would start trending upward by fall 2016.

“I’m comfortable that we’re going to have some upticks,” he said Thursday. He said applications were down by a bigger percentage a few weeks ago, so the gap has narrowed as the ad campaign has progressed.

The school also plans to have faculty and alumni make calls to students, fill a vacant enrollment management position and send letters to prospective students.

“We’re going to work hard,” Kesselman said.

Quint said officials came up with the idea for the new scholarships and ad campaign in early January and rolled it out by mid-February. The ad campaign will wrap up by next week.

“We flooded the market,” he said. The school targeted the first few months of the year because “that’s when a large chunk of students are making decisions on where to enroll.”

NONTRADITIONAL STUDENTS TARGETED

USM recommends students apply for admission by the priority filing deadline of Feb. 15. Different scholarships have different deadlines, from a Feb. 15 deadline for students applying for academic scholarships, to April 1 for merit scholarships. Applications will continue to be accepted after that date.

Quint said university officials will have a better idea of the impact of the ad campaign after the April 1 deadline.

The whole UMaine system has seen enrollments decline for years, which officials say is mostly a result of the shrinking number of Maine high school graduates.

Colleges nationwide are struggling to meet enrollment targets, as national high school graduation rates have plateaued, according to the Education Advisory Board, a publicly traded Washington, D.C.-based education consultancy firm.

Colin Koproske, a senior consultant for the company, said 59 percent of public colleges missed their enrollment targets in 2013-14, according to their data. Many of them turn to companies like the Education Advisory Board to help with enrollment management.

“Aside from the most well-known universities, it has become much harder for colleges to enroll students qualified for their institutions without external support,” Koproske said in an email.

To counter that trend, all seven campuses in the University of Maine System are beefing up recruiting efforts and targeting more nontraditional, transfer, adult and out-of-state students.

USM has seen an increase in inquiries and hits on its website since the campaign started, Quint said.

Analytic data from Facebook, for example, showed that last year only about one in 10 people viewed more USM webpages after clicking on a USM ad targeting undergraduates; this year, about three in 10 are viewing more than one page of the USM site. The numbers are even higher, Quint said, for ads targeting graduate and transfer students.

The new $1 million in scholarship money is being added to the $23.5 million in scholarship funds currently available at USM.

This article was updated at 9:36 a.m. on Friday, March 20, 2015 to clarify information about the Education Advisory Board.