September 11, 2013

In Maine, state university enrollment falls

Early data show a decline of 3 percent, blamed partly on a drop in high school grads, and officials say it could have been worse.

By Noel K. Gallagher
Staff Writer

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Students work outside classrooms of Payson Smith Hall at the University of Southern Maine in Portland on Tuesday, September 10, 2013.

Derek Davis / Staff Photographer

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:


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