A new University of Maine scholarship program has attracted so many first-year students from out of state for the coming fall that it’s helping the university overcome the challenge of a dwindling population of college-age students from Maine. A side benefit is that the program could help to attract young, educated workers to Maine who might later stay here.

Under its Flagship Match program, qualified students from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and New Jersey will pay the same tuition and fees to attend UMaine this fall as they would at their own state’s flagship campus.

University officials have credited the program with fueling a spike of incoming first-year students, particularly from out of state. As of May 1, 2,447 first-year students had committed to attending UMaine in the fall, compared with 2,012 at the same time last year. Of those, 1,123 are from outside Maine, a sharp increase from 731 a year ago. About 79 percent come from the six northeastern states targeted by the program.

The Flagship Match program is unique among higher education institutions, and it’s given UMaine an edge in an intensifying regional competition for students.

Attracting more students from outside Maine doesn’t just add to the university’s bottom line, it also benefits Maine by drawing in educated young adults who may stay in the state after graduation, UMaine President Susan Hunter said.

Campus benefit

A spike in out-of-state students is a potential saving grace for Maine’s flagship campus, which has not been able to escape the financial problems that have dogged UMaine in recent years as a result of flagging enrollment.

Total enrollment at the flagship campus has fallen 2 percent since 2011, fueled largely by a 15 percent decline among Maine residents, according to University of Maine System’s latest enrollment report. The university has been able to offset the loss of Maine residents with a 54 percent increase in out-of-state students since 2011.

In designing the Flagship Match program, the university closely examined admissions data and found that 25 percent of prospective students from out of state who were accepted to UMaine but did not enroll chose to attend another land grant university in the Northeast, according to UMaine Provost Jeffrey Hecker.

To capture more of these students, the university took the unprecedented step of matching the in-state tuition at flagship universities in the six northeastern states those prospective students were most likely to attend.

A Massachusetts student, for example, who attends UMaine would pay the in-state UMass Amherst price of $14,356, more than half off UMaine’s out-of-state tuition rate of $28,880. But UMaine still sees a financial boost when enough of those students enroll, since UMass Amherst’s in-state tuition rate is higher than UMaine’s in-state rate of $10,610.

In order to qualify for the full Flagship Match program, students must have at least a 3.0 grade point average and SAT scores of 1,050 or higher. If an accepted student does not meet the criteria but is still admitted to UMaine, he or she qualifies for a smaller award of $9,000.

“This only works because there is a difference between other states’ in-state tuition and our in-state rate,” Hecker said.

Plus, the number of students who have committed to attending UMaine has exceeded the projected 2,200 students the university expected when it built its budget for the next school year, Hecker said.

Based on the program’s early success, UMaine has considered expanding it beyond the six northeastern states to include flagships in California and Illinois, Joel Wincowski, interim vice president for enrollment management and architect of the program, told the Portland Press Herald.

In the coming years, the pressure on Maine’s universities to look beyond state lines for students will only increase as the pool of high school graduates is forecast to shrink. Maine reached its peak graduation class size of 17,000 during the 2007-08 school year. It’s expected to fall to 13,521 during the 2019-20 school year, according to the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, and continue to decline into the next decade.

Even with a falling population of high school students, UMaine saw a 3 percent bump in Maine residents who enrolled at the university, an indication that so far, Mainers aren’t being displaced by the growing population of out-of-state students.

A growing population of students from out of state will help make education more affordable for Maine residents by making it possible to keep in-state tuition in a deep freeze, Hecker said.

“It brings in tuition dollars to keep in-state tuition low,” Hecker said. “It’s a win-win for the state of Maine.”

Good for Maine

Maine’s abundance of baby boomers coupled with a substantially smaller millennial population contributes to a grim economic forecast. Unless Maine can overcome this demographic challenge and attract more young and educated workers, it will becoming harder for businesses to grow in the state, according to the Department of Labor’s workforce outlook report.

If the Flagship Match program draws in a larger pool of students from outside the state, many could stay in the state after graduation. College graduates often decide to live in the same state where they went to school regardless of whether it’s their home state, economists Jeffrey Groen and Melissa White concluded in a 2003 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper.

But over the past two decades, Maine and other New England states have seen college graduates leave at a higher rate than any other U.S. region, according to a 2013 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

A year after graduation, only 64 percent of graduates from the class of 2008 still were living in New England, compared with 83 percent for Mid-Atlantic states. Among those from outside New England, only 20 percent were living in the region after graduation. About 22 percent of UMaine graduates from outside of Maine settle in Maine after graduation, according to UMaine’s Office of Institutional Research — slightly higher than the regional average.

Most graduates who left the region did so to find better jobs, a lower cost of living or to live closer to family and their support networks, according to the Federal Reserve Bank report.

But there is a way UMaine can help the state could hang onto those graduates. Internships build stronger ties between students and local employers, allowing them to get a taste of the job opportunities that exist in Maine and build networks while in school, according to a 2009 Federal Reserve Bank of Boston report.

These connections increase the likelihood that students will stay in the state after graduation. About half of students who interned in New England in 2008 later were hired to work full time at those same businesses, according the 2009 Federal Reserve report.

To that end, UMaine plans to launch its Flagship Internship program later this year with the aim to connect students with internship opportunities to gain real-world experience in their fields, build connections with the local business community and increase their chances of getting a full-time job after graduation.

“We really need an educated workforce, and we need to add people to the state in order to have a vibrant economy,” Hunter said.