December 11, 2011

UMaine System seeks more students

After a decade of decreasing enrollment, the UMaine system has launched an aggressive campaign to attract more local and out-of-state students.

By Leslie Bridgers
Staff Writer

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

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Andrea Mondor, a sophomore at the University of Southern Maine, studies in the library on the Gorham campus. USM has experienced one of the steepest enrollment declines in the system – more than 18 percent since 2002.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Staff Graphic/Michael Fisher

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Competition drains pool of potential USM students

The biggest drag on the University of Maine's enrollment figures over the last decade was the University of Southern Maine.

Since 2002, the system's enrollment has dropped 9 percent, from 34,089 students to 31,108 students.

USM has dropped a staggering 18 percent.

Those 2,081 students account for 70 percent of the decrease in the system's enrollment since 2002.

USM President Selma Botman said "a multiplicity of factors" led to USM's enrollment decline.

"However," she added, "we recognize this must be reversed and we're working hard to do that."

Botman and others say competition in Greater Portland is the main reason enrollment at USM has dropped.

Southern Maine Community College, for example, grew from 2,850 students in 2002 to 7,482 students in 2011 -- an increase of 163 percent. St. Joseph's College in Standish, Kaplan University's South Portland campus and Southern New Hampshire University's Brunswick campus also provide competition for USM.

Maureen Salisbury, Deering High School guidance director, said the difference in cost per credit hour -- $253 at USM versus $86 at SMCC -- is usually the deciding factor for students choosing between the two schools.

-- Leslie Bridgers

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.


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.


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.

(Continued on page 2)

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