Karen Keim’s looking for adults who want to go to college or return to college. Better economic times appear to make that harder than usual.

Through a federally funded program based at the University of Maine, Keim has about 450 openings to offer college counseling to adults 19 and older who don’t have bachelor’s degrees.

In most years, Keim said it’s not difficult to fill the program’s 2,269 spots well before enrollment closes Aug. 31. This year, she said low unemployment statewide appears to put a damper on the number of people looking for higher education help.

The Maine Educational Opportunity Center targets the nearly three-fourths of Maine adults who don’t have at least a bachelor’s degree, offering help to overcome some of the most common hurdles for people who want to continue education beyond high school but don’t.

It’s also open to foreigners seeking asylum in Maine, as long as they can provide proof of their asylum application.

“We have a lot of people who come to us who started college a long time ago and stopped out because life interrupted,” Keim said.

The program’s not just for people seeking four-year degrees. Keim said it also offers help getting people connected with associate degree programs, career and vocational training, or certification programs.

The Maine Chamber of Commerce and nonprofit Educate Maine recently unveiled their own plans to boost that type of training as a way to improve students’ career options and to address employers’ demand for skilled workers.

Employers are facing a tougher time finding the right workers as unemployment is lower than it’s ever been in Maine and the nation has surpassed “full employment,” which the Federal Reserve has defined as a national unemployment rate of 4.6 percent.

Maine’s jobless rate was 3.2 percent in May and many parts of the state averaged below 3 percent for the 12 months from May 2016 to May 2017. Cumberland County’s unemployment rate for May was the lowest in the state, at 2.6 percent.

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Most of the areas below 3 percent were in the southern part of the state and Bangor suburbs.

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While the program doesn’t pay for higher education, the counseling includes assistance in applying for federal financial aid and other funding.

“There are all sorts of funding streams and it’s directing people to the right one,” Keim said. “There’s no such thing as a ‘free ride’ any longer, but we significantly help reduce people’s costs by helping them apply for the right funding stream.”

Keim said the program also helps people craft a plan for the best and least expensive way to achieve their career goals. For example, she said options for students to start at a community college and transfer to another school to finish a degree can save money.

“We look at all sorts of strategies for an individual and we try to help them reduce their costs,” Keim said.

That can include fulfilling remedial coursework through adult education programs rather than through more expensive college courses.

Keim said she sees broader social and economic benefits for Maine in boosting the numbers of such students, too.

“We can’t just have wealthy people going to college,” Keim said. “That’s going to put us in a very risky place as a country and we won’t be able to compete globally.”

The program requires applicants to attend a workshop, where they can fill out a two-page application. The program posts information about upcoming workshops at meoc.maine.edu.

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.