October 20, 2013

Maine public universities face mandate to get numbers up

As enrollments plummet and competition spikes, recruiters search harder than ever for prospective students

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Maine’s public universities are fighting for every student they can get.

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Students dine in the cafeteria Wednesday at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Students and faculty members cross the mall at the University of Maine in Orono last week. Amid increasing competition, college recruiters are focusing on nontraditional students and those from other New England states as they try to boost Maine’s falling enrollment numbers.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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A shrinking pool of Maine high school graduates is forcing the universities to adopt new tactics and target more nontraditional students, primarily out-of-state students, transfer students and international students. But other states are facing the same problem and are increasing their recruitment efforts, too.

The result: Competition for would-be college students is at a fever pitch, officials say.

“It is more competitive; kids have a lot more choices,” said Tracey Moore, a college guidance counselor at Deering High School in Portland.

That has recruiters at the seven-campus University of Maine System digging deep for new ways to attract students. Between 2008 and 2012, systemwide enrollment dropped 4.9 percent; enrollment dropped 8 percent at the flagship campus, Orono’s University of Maine, and 6 percent at the University of Southern Maine.

System officials have started chasing nontraditional students, such as students from other countries or ones who left college without a degree; targeted students from outside New England, where the system has not traditionally focused much attention; and used more sophisticated data-mining methods to find out what features certain prospective students look for in their college experience.

Deering senior Jenny Chiem, one of those Maine high school students, is on the cusp of deciding whether to go to a more expensive college out of state that has an attractive academic program or stay in-state, where tuition is lower.

“I’m not that picky about schools, but I don’t want to be a burden to my family,” said Chiem, who wants to study physical therapy and is leaning toward Northeastern University in Boston. She’s a multilingual, first-generation student, enrolled in honors classes with grades that put her in the top 10 percent of her class. She has strong SAT scores, works at a family business and volunteers on environmental issues.

“What school wouldn’t want her and give her a good chunk of change?” Moore said.

For graduating seniors, cost has always been a consideration in choosing a college, and the lackluster economy has made it worse, she said. Students and their families are focused on the price of college after hearing stories about soaring tuition and college graduates who leave school saddled with huge debt and bleak job prospects.

That financial concern gives an advantage to selective schools with big endowments, which can offer aid packages that make attending a prestigious institution less expensive than going to an in-state university, Moore said.

At the other end of the educational spectrum, private schools emphasizing a fast track to a job-ready degree also have drawn off traditional students from public universities. In Maine, those schools include an expanding Kaplan University and Husson University, which together enrolled almost 5,000 students last year.

“I have sympathy for the UMaine System. I think they’re between a rock and a hard place and through no fault of their own,” Moore said. “There’s a game out there that is not to their advantage.”

That scramble for students has hurt the UMaine System even though it froze tuition two years ago and continued to offer a traditional liberal arts education while introducing more targeted degrees in sports management or hospitality.

So how do Maine state universities make sure they’re reaching out to the right potential students? Analyzing their online behavior, for one.

For the first time this year, the University of Maine used data-mining software that tracked how prospective students clicked around on UMaine websites, allowing the school to follow up with personalized letters that reflected that person’s interests.

At the University of Southern Maine, enrollment officers sought to lock up student commitments early, initiating an early acceptance policy this year. They also sent recruiters to college fairs in Chicago and Virginia – far outside the usual New England territory – in search of prospective students.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Deering High School senior Jenny Chiem is exploring her options and says she doesn’t want tuition costs “to be a burden to my family.”

Emma-Leigh Stevenson, a University of Southern Maine student from Sanford, says family tradition influenced her decision to stay in state.

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Lucie Tardif, 57, a student at the University of Southern Maine, works in the Office of Public Affairs at USM in Portland on Friday.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Aaron Halls, a freshman from Lisbon at the University of Southern Maine, says a close-knit community is important to him.


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