Cooper Bennett, a senior at the University of Maine, raises his hand to ask a question during an on-campus hybrid class on Friday. Bennett and one other student attended professor Clayton Wheeler’s class in person while many attended via Zoom. Professor Wheeler’s lectures are also recorded and posted for viewing outside of the classroom. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

High school seniors are applying to Maine’s public universities in lower numbers than they did before the pandemic, as the coronavirus has disrupted most elements of the traditional college search and application process.

Fewer applications could be coming in particular from low-income students and those who would be the first in their families to attend college, reflecting a national trend.

The University of Maine System’s seven universities have received 13 percent fewer applications from high school seniors so far this academic year compared with a year ago. Applications from Maine students have declined at twice the rate of out-of-state applications. In addition, the number of Maine high school seniors filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid has dropped by 6 percent from last year.

Over the past few months, as high school seniors have been completing applications, they did not have the same opportunities as before the pandemic to speak with college students and professors, tour college campuses, meet with admissions staff who often spend the fall visiting high schools and work with their guidance counselors to figure out how to pay for college, according to University of Maine System administrators and high school counselors.

“In most years, our low-income, first-generation students are the ones that typically need the most support,” said Troy Wagstaff, an Orono High School guidance counselor. “That’s a group that’s particularly at risk this year, and our ability to support them throughout that continues to really be a challenge.”

Universities across the country have seen a decline in applications this year, with low-income and prospective first-generation students accounting for a disproportionate portion of the drop.

To address the situation in Maine, the university system is planning a series of virtual events to set up high schoolers with financial aid experts, college students and admissions experts, as well as opportunities to tour campuses virtually. The events are the result of a partnership with the Maine Department of Education and the Finance Authority of Maine, which administers college loan and savings programs.

Every Wednesday evening starting in February and ending in April, one UMaine System campus will host its own event aimed at promoting that campus regionally, but students from anywhere can attend. The public university system will also host system-wide virtual conventions on two Saturday mornings.

“One of the mantras we frequently share with students is to build as many options as possible,” said Lisa Hallen, director of guidance at Waterville Senior High School. “When they have multiple options, they’re also likely to face fewer limitations. It is vital to know that it is not too late for seniors and their families to apply from home.”