March 13, 2010

Failing economy helps USM president market schoolThis is a 6-column headyne for dummy type



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Gordon Chibroski

Staff Writer

SCARBOROUGH — Tom Pogar didn't think seriously about attending the University of Southern Maine until recently.

In light of the struggling economy, the Scarborough High School senior is giving the local state school strong consideration.

''It offers the same education for lower cost,'' said Pogar, who plans to study English. ''It's still not my top choice, but I'm thinking about it.''

Katie Thomas has made up her mind. She plans to study teaching at a state school.

''I have to pay for college myself,'' Thomas said. ''If I go out of state, it's going to cost me twice as much.''

Pogar and Thomas were among about 20 students who met with USM President Selma Botman on Friday to talk about the benefits of attending the state school in their ''backyard.''

Botman, who became president in July, is meeting with high school students throughout southern Maine. She wants to increase the number of Mainers who have college degrees and the number of students who attend and graduate from USM.

The international financial crisis seems to be helping her cause, with the presidential candidates of both major parties talking regularly about how costly it is to send kids to college.

''People are looking at schools closer to home because of the economy,'' Botman said.

The University of Maine System, with seven universities and 10 regional outreach centers, offers a less-expensive, academically competitive alternative, Botman said.

The system's current average annual tuition is $7,822, including mandatory fees. That's for a resident undergraduate student taking at least 15 credit hours each semester, according to system records.

Botman accepted the post as the 10,500-student university confronted an $8.2 million deficit triggered by falling enrollments, stagnant state aid and rising operating costs.

Thirty-four percent of Maine residents who are 25 and older have at least an associate's degree, according to a 2008 report from the Maine Economic Growth Council. That's in line with the national rate but behind New England's rate of nearly 42 percent.

In addition, 34 percent of first-time, full-time USM students graduate with bachelor's degrees. That's half the national rate for similar schools. Botman said she's shooting for a rate closer to 50 percent.

As for being academically competitive, some of the Scarborough students Botman met with on Friday questioned whether USM offered programs comparable to other schools they're considering.

Kevin Burke said he often hears that the University of Maine, in Orono, has a great engineering program, and that St. Joseph's College in Standish has a great nursing program. ''I never hear what USM is great at,'' Burke said.

''Well, shame on us that we haven't conveyed that to you,'' Botman responded. ''That tells me the message about USM has not gotten out.''

Botman said USM has competitive programs in education, music, theater, engineering, environmental science, business, sports management, nursing and other health professions.

For some Scarborough students, the economy isn't an issue in their college search. Some said their parents are willing and able to pay.

''I want to leave the state,'' Caterina MacLean said.

Burke said he plans to attend the school that offers the best program in his chosen field of study, regardless of the cost.

Principal Patricia Conant said some students may reconsider their plans next spring when they sit down with their parents and have to choose between a state school and a more costly school.

''The reality is, the economy and the ability to pay are factors,'' Conant said.

For Felicia Mazzone, another Scarborough senior, the decision to attend USM instead of the University of New Hampshire was easy. USM has the educational program she wants and a women's ice hockey team. The aspiring biology teacher also wants to stay close to her family.

''I'm like, great school, same education, less money,'' Mazzone said.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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