Fewer students are enrolling in undergraduate college programs, and the drop is having a big impact on Maine’s community college system as the coronavirus pandemic and a tight labor market continue to pull more students away from the classroom and into the workforce.

Enrollment this fall in the Maine Community College System is down 5.9 percent from last year and 13.4 percent from a pre-pandemic enrollment in fall 2019. There are 15,005 students enrolled now compared with 17,327 two years ago.

The decline is also evident, although less dramatic, in undergraduate enrollments in the University of Maine System. Enrollment has dropped 4.9 percent in two years, from 22,266 to 21,166 students this fall.

The trends mirror a national decline in college enrollment during the pandemic that has been particularly felt at community colleges, which tend to enroll more low-income and non-traditional students – the same students who have been hardest hit by the pandemic. Enrollment at community colleges nationwide has dropped by 14.1 percent since fall 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

And college officials say they worry about the long-term impacts of so many students opting out of completing their educations.

“With the pandemic, I’m sure it’s hard on a lot of people, especially if they’re like me and have had problems with family and not really having as much support as they need,” said Vinny Reed, a freshman at Southern Maine Community College who enrolled this fall despite uncertainty over how he would pay for school without any family support.

Reed, who is studying communications and media, said he also works five days per week at McDonald’s and questions whether he’ll stay in school. “A lot of things aren’t clicking,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m being as productive and successful as I could be if I were just working.”

For many students, especially those who were already struggling, the pandemic has brought new challenges, such as a worsening child care crisis and housing insecurity. Some are abandoning or putting off their higher education goals, especially when the current job market is desperate for workers.

“Many of our students have children at home and therefore they have to take care of their kids,” said Maine Community College System President David Daigler. “Many of them often have intergenerational responsibilities, so they may also be taking care of parents. They’re trying to work. They’re trying to take care of their kids. You layer on the complications of the pandemic and that was just too much. Then you wave a $20 per hour job out in front of someone who has really been struggling and that lures them out of the classroom.”

Vinny Reed, a freshman, has enrolled at Southern Maine Community College this fall despite having uncertainty about how he would pay for school without family support. “With the pandemic, I’m sure it’s hard on a lot of people,” he said. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Daigler said he’s concerned that some people who are opting to join the workforce rather than pursue a degree are doing so without long-term skills to build on. “It’s a loss for the economy because they don’t have the skills to advance,” he said. “That $20 an hour job doesn’t lead to a $22 an hour job and then a $25 an hour job.”

At Southern Maine Community College, Dean of Students Barbara Conner said her office has been hearing a few reasons from students about why they’re discontinuing or putting off their education. SMCC’s fall enrollment is down 6.1 percent from fall 2020.

“It’s usually life that has stopped them from being able to come in,” Conner said. “That’s what we know anecdotally. That’s also what we hear from a majority of our current students who are also not continuing. What I mean by ‘life’ is with COVID (there are) mental health issues, the housing insecurity piece that goes with that, food. Everything you can think of like that has just been amplified.”

Some high school students have also expressed reservations about enrolling in college as long as a greater percentage of classes continue to be taught online. And while the number of in-person classes has increased compared with other points of the pandemic, Conner said the college had to continue with social distancing and smaller in-person class sizes while waiting for its vaccine mandate to be fully implemented, and those restrictions forced some classes to continue remotely.

“A lot of students have told us they want to be hands-on,” Conner said. “They want to be in the classroom. They don’t want to be on Zoom anymore.”

Maxim Hill is in his first semester at SMCC after transferring from Southern New Hampshire University, where he enrolled for one semester after high school last year but struggled with online learning. At SMCC, three of his four classes are in-person.

“I’m finding it’s a lot better for me than online,” said Hill, 19, of Dover, New Hampshire.

During his semester off, Hill worked full time as a delivery driver in Kittery. He said it wasn’t hard to make the decision to go back to school because his job has another location that he transferred to, and he missed the social aspect of college.

“It’s good to see people everyday,” he said. “During the pandemic there was a lot of just not seeing anybody. Once this year started up again and I was able to get into a dorm – it was the first time I was in a dorm – it was really good. It felt good to get back into the social aspect.”

Maxim Hill, 19, of Dover, N.H., says he struggled with online learning before he transferred this fall to Southern Maine Community College, where three of his four classes are in-person. “I’m finding it’s a lot better for me than online,” he said. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

For students with families, the challenges of child care and the unpredictability of school schedules in the COVID-19 era, as well as the job market, have kept some out of the classroom.

“Businesses need employees so badly they’re pulling some of our students away from us,” Conner said. “The students can go out right now and get a job that pays very well, and I’m sure many of them have put their educational goals on hold because of that.”

Four-year colleges and universities in general have weathered the pandemic better than community colleges, though several universities in the University of Maine System are also seeing declines in their undergraduate populations this fall. At the University of Southern Maine, undergraduate enrollment is down 7.6 percent, from 5,322 students to 4,915.

Vice President for Enrollment Management and Marketing Jared Cash said the shift isn’t a reflection of this year’s freshman class but rather upperclass students who may not be returning at the same rate as they have in the past because of pandemic challenges.

“There is a section of (students) that are part time, working towards their degree by design over a long period of time, working at the same time or taking care of major obligations in their family economics, and that group, I think, is one of the groups not persisting at the same rate as their traditional peers,” Cash said.

The pandemic appears to be having the opposite effect on enrollments for advanced degrees. Graduate program enrollments in the UMaine System are up 9.5 percent this fall. Daigler, the community college system president, said the pandemic has had an “impact on both ends of the scale.”

In South Portland, Southern Maine Community College’s fall enrollment is down 6.1 percent from the same time last year. The college had to continue with social distancing and smaller in-person class sizes while waiting for its vaccine mandate to be fully implemented. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Ambitious students who see purpose and opportunity are pursuing graduate school but the students who have been hardest hit by the pandemic, they’re recoiling,” Daigler said. “They’re pulling back.”

The longer students stay out of school, the harder it is to get them back in the classroom. At USM, Cash said the university has hired a student experience advocate to help reach out to those students who aren’t continuing with their education to gain a better understanding of their lives and offer support so they can return to school.

SMCC will also be making a push this spring to bring back students who are putting off their education, primarily through social media and digital marketing campaigns.

“We want them to understand we’re here,” Conner said. “We’re here always. It doesn’t matter if it’s today or two years from now that they need us. We want them to know we’ll still be here if they want to come back, if they can,” Conner said, though she isn’t quite sure if enrollment will return to what it was. Instead, she believes more students may continue to opt for short-term workforce training.

Already, the decline in enrollment in traditional degree programs coincides with an increase in students participating in non-credit classes including short-term workforce training. More than 6,200 people completed short-term workforce training programs with the community college system in the fiscal year ending June 30. That’s an increase of 73 percent from the 3,625 people who completed such programs in 2020.

Daigler said he sees room for growth in the workforce training model as more low-skill jobs are eliminated through automation, though he continues to believe in the importance of a degree. Recently the community college system announced a $60 million investment in a virtual workforce training center that offers students pre-hire and workforce training, as well as a bridge to certificate and degree programs that will help them advance.

“I do think you’re seeing changes in the workplace, changes in people’s mindsets and changes in the way we deliver education and some of them will be permanent,” Daigler said. “There will be some bounce-back but it won’t go back to the way it was.”


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