The University of Maine System is likely to have significantly fewer students this coming school year, continuing a decade-long decline in enrollment that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Official numbers won’t come out until the fall, but as of Wednesday, the latest data available, there were 1,148, or 6.6 percent, fewer undergraduate students signed up to attend the system’s seven universities than at this time last year. Compared to this time five years ago, in 2018, there are 12 percent fewer students slated to attend.

The rising freshman class has the largest drop in enrollment. On Wednesday, there were 2,828 students enrolled, about 20 percent less than last year at this time, when 3,517 students had signed up.

The Maine Community College System is seeing a similar trend. Between fall 2017 and fall 2021, the community college system’s seven schools had around 2,000 fewer students enroll in associate degree programs – 15,005 compared to 16,968.   

Shrinking enrollment could have a significant financial impact on Maine’s public schools. Fewer students enrolled means fewer people splitting the cost of running an institute of higher education, which could push the system to raise tuition and cut costs by eliminating programs and employees.

The system got rid of nine humanities and social studies faculty positions at the University of Maine at Farmington this year. The system’s Orono campus already is planning to close a dining and residence hall partially because of the anticipated low enrollment.


Declining college enrollment is a national issue. There was a decline of 4.7 percent, or 662,000 students, in undergraduate enrollment in spring 2022 compared to a year prior. Over the past decade, the country’s post-secondary education enrollment has dropped by around 3 million students, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the research arm of a nonprofit that reports education data.

Experts say shrinking attendance could have severe and far-reaching economic and social consequences.


Decreased economic and social mobility, lower earnings, more unemployment, skilled worker shortages, slower economic growth and fewer people voting all are potential results of fewer people going to and graduating from colleges and universities, said Josh Wyner, the founder and executive director of the college excellence program at the nonprofit Aspen Institute.

“Declining college enrollment is a huge problem for our society and our economy,” he said.

Wyner said that a college degree is the surest way to get a good job – one that pays well and has benefits. But over the past decade, it appears that a significant number of prospective students haven’t seen it that way.


Between 2010 and 2020, the number of Maine high school graduates enrolling in college dropped 8 percentage points, from 63.2 percent to 55.2 percent, according to the New England Secondary School Consortium.

There’s a lot of conjecture about why fewer students are opting to pursue two- or four-year degree programs. Many say prospective students are concerned about the cost, time commitment and return on investment, questioning whether college is really going to lead to a better life.

The declining birth rate also is an issue. Both nationally and in Maine, the birth rate declined for decades prior to the pandemic, but it was steeper in Maine. The Maine birth rate went from 17,313 in 1990 to 11,537 in 2020, even though the state’s overall population increased during that period. There was a 4 percent increase in births in 2021.

Although there is a clear trend of declining college enrollment, some schools are weathering the storm better than others, much better in some cases. Maine’s elite private colleges – Bates, Bowdoin and Colby – are seeing either steady or increased enrollment. All three are expecting average class sizes for the coming academic year.  

This, too, mirrors national trends. While state school systems such as UMaine and the community colleges struggle to draw students, competitive private colleges are receiving higher applicant numbers than ever. Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale received record numbers of applications for the upcoming school year, as did Bowdoin, Colby and Bates.   



The trend also is impacting different groups of students to different degrees. Low-income students in the U.S. in 2020 were 16 percent less likely to enroll in college immediately following high school compared to high-income students. Roughly 65 percent of high-income students enrolled in college the year they graduated from high school, but that number was only 49 percent for low-income students, according to the Clearinghouse Research Center.

Wyner said getting public college enrollment numbers back up will take a joint effort. The federal and state governments need to reduce the financial burden of higher education on students by expanding grants and need-based aid programs, he said, and colleges need to ensure they are providing degrees of high value.

“It is not OK for colleges to enroll students and not do everything they can to support students and make sure their degrees can be used for well-paying jobs,” he said. “There is room for policy makers to support students and for colleges to deliver more value.”

With enrollment on the decline, UMaine System Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Robert Placido said keeping tuition flat – which the system has done seven out of the past 10 years – will be a challenge unless it continues to receive enough money from the state to make up for the lost enrollment revenue. “We’re hopeful we won’t have to (raise tuition), but it’s a serious concern.”

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