The kitchen of Eastern Maine Community College’s Rangeley Cafe is shown in 2017. The cafe is a training restaurant for the culinary arts students at the community college in Bangor. Credit: Micky Bedell

Maine’s community colleges have seen their enrollment grow this fall, marking the first increase in the number of students at the state’s two-year colleges since 2014.

The total number of students enrolled at Maine’s seven community colleges grew 4 percent this fall over last fall’s enrollment, an increase of 705 students, according to Maine Community College System figures. Some 17,327 students are enrolled at community colleges this fall, up from 16,662 a year ago.

The number of students includes both full- and part-time students and includes those seeking degrees, those enrolled but not seeking degrees and high school students taking community college courses.

The increase followed four straight years of enrollment declines at the community colleges, which offer associate’s degrees and professional certificates. Those enrollment declines came after a time of generally steep growth for the community college system since it formed in 2002.

Maine’s community colleges saw a decade of steady enrollment increases from 2002 to 2011, which is when the number of students across the system began to decline. In the fall of 2014, enrollment increased by about 100 students, or 0.4 percent, over the previous fall. Afterward, however, the decline continued until this fall.

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“This growth stands in contrast to declining enrollments at two-year colleges across the country in recent years,” said Helen Pelletier, vice president and chief communications and strategic planning officer for the Maine Community College System.

In recent years, the community college system had traded places with the University of Maine System when it came to enrollment trends. The state’s public universities saw overall enrollment start to increase in 2016, ending a 13-year enrollment decline, while community college enrollment slid.

This fall, the largest enrollment increase has happened at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, where 6,384 students are enrolled this year compared with 5,862 last year, according to system figures.

Two of the seven community colleges — Kennebec Valley and York County community colleges — saw decreases in the number of students compared with fall 2018. Kennebec Valley Community College enrollment dropped by 67 students, while York County Community College’s enrollment slid by just two students.

In addition to the rise in the number of degree-seeking students, the number of trainees who completed short-term job training sessions community college offer has almost doubled in the past year, to 1,602 from 897.

Community college enrollment has been linked to the economy, according to Pelletier. More students enroll when unemployment increases. Maine is still seeing record low unemployment, which makes the increased community college enrollment this fall noteworthy.

The system attributed the increase in the 2019 enrollment numbers to initiatives it launched across the state in the past year, including more visits to high schools, reaching prospective students through text instead of email and adding in-demand programs, such as plumbing.