When I was an undergraduate student in the early 1970s, classrooms and dorms were filled with students fresh out of high school. That is no longer the case. The fastest-growing sector of higher education is the adult market.

The drop in the number of traditional-age college students is a trend that is expected to continue in the years ahead. The highly respected national Center for Education Statistics projects that in the next seven years, the enrollment of students under the age of 25 will increase by 9 percent, while enrollment of students age 25 and older will grow by 23 percent.

A look at the University of Southern Maine’s student body confirms this trend of fewer traditional-age college students and more adults beginning or completing their baccalaureate degrees. There are also more students from away and from around the world who have chosen to pursue their degrees here.

Given the well-publicized — and continuing — decline in Maine’s high school graduate population, as well as the widely lamented low numbers of Mainers who complete their college degrees, the changing demographics of USM’s student body represent a healthy development. Public comprehensive universities are designed precisely to serve students across a range of ages, backgrounds and experiences.

Take Dan Crothers of Peaks Island, a former high school English teacher who now works with Professor Doug Currie in his neurotoxicology lab.

“This is something that has been fantastic for me,” said Crothers of his opportunities as a biology major to work with faculty outside of the classroom. “My USM degree will be very key to me going on and succeeding as a medical student and then as a doctor.”

David Gagne, a senior from Shapleigh, graduated from the California Institute of Technology in 2001 with a bachelor’s in engineering.

After working for nine years in Maryland as a civil engineer, Gagne decided that USM’s computer science program would be a good fit.

Indeed it was. He recently received honorable mention in the national Computing Research Association’s 2012 Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award Program. Gagne will graduate this spring and then plans on enrolling in USM’s master’s program in computer science.

Consider Mary Klement of Westbrook, a 2011 Dean’s List graduate of USM who won the prestigious Woodrow Wilson-Rockefeller Brothers Fund Fellowship for Aspiring Teachers of Color.

Klement began her studies in 1999 as a full-time working mother, earning honors along the way.

The changing face of USM’s student body reflects more than just the demographics of age. The cultural diversity of the student body is also increasing.

In 2008, Kim Lim moved with his family from Cambodia to South Portland. Although Lim had minimal English language skills upon his arrival in the United States, he graduated two years later in the top 10 percent of his class at South Portland High School.

Thanks to a USM Presidential Scholarship, Lim is now a sophomore business major at USM. “I find myself adjusting to a culture that is simultaneously challenging and compelling,” Lim told us.

As a business major with an economics minor, he plans to pursue a career that will incorporate his interests in the hospitality industry and travel.

USM, like other American regional public universities, also serves students who initially look elsewhere for higher education opportunities, but who discover that they have an excellent option closer to home.

Amanda Pleau of Lewiston attended an out-of-state art college and then transferred to USM from Central Maine Community College.

Now a media studies major planning to graduate in 2012, she already has written for a Portland weekly newspaper as well as USM’s student newspaper, The Free Press.

Pleau has internships on campus and in Portland, where she lives on the peninsula and where she is actively engaged in her community’s recreational and cultural life.

As I have reported before, more undergraduates in the United States are educated at comprehensive universities like USM than at any other category of four-year institution of higher education.

The changing nature of USM’s student body makes more imperative than ever our commitment to giving all students an education that both transforms their understanding of the world and sets them on a path to productive and fulfilling lives.

That challenge is precisely one of the most compelling reasons I know for supporting public higher education. Many of us — the middle and working classes, women, the many races that people America, and the immigrants who make our country their home — owe our personal and professional success to the democratization of higher education.

Since the Morrill Act of 1862 championed the establishment of public universities across the United States dedicated to providing practical education for citizens, American society and our culture are simply unthinkable outside the advance of public higher education.

Selma Botman is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]