University of Maine students celebrate as they move their tassels and get their diplomas during graduation, May 7, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Maine’s seven public universities are on track to see their smallest first-year classes in years when the fall semester starts, marking a drastic one-year drop even for a state university system that has seen a gradual, long-term decline in its student population.

The number of students signed up to attend one of Maine’s seven public universities full time for the 2022 fall semester as of Tuesday was 23 percent lower than at the same point last year, according to University of Maine System figures.

The decline at Maine’s public universities matches a national trend of fewer students enrolling in college during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a trend with profound effects on the University of Maine System’s financial health that increases the chances of the system having to raise tuition in the coming years.

Some 2,377 students were signed up as of Tuesday, down from 3,107 a year ago, a drop of more than 700 students. At the same time last year, the University of Maine System actually had seen a slight increase from 2020 in full-time students signed up for the fall semester.

“This decline in enrollment means a decline in revenues, plain and simple,” Trish Riley, chair of the University of Maine System’s board of trustees, told lawmakers during a June 16 meeting.

Full-time, first-year class sizes won’t be finalized until mid-October, when the University of Maine System conducts a student census, and the number of students will likely rise before then. But the number is still on track to be significantly lower than in previous years.

The drop for the coming fall semester comes on the heels of consistent enrollment declines over the past decade. The University of Maine System — which includes seven universities and the University of Maine School of Law — saw its total, full-time fall enrollment drop 11 percent from 2012 through 2021. The University of Maine, in Orono, is the only one of the system’s seven universities to have seen its total enrollment rise in that time.

The university system has been working to recover from those enrollment drops through investments in campus facilities and by recruiting more adult learners, said Robert Placido, the system’s vice chancellor for academic affairs.

And despite this year’s marked decline, the system is seeing some positive news in the number of applications coming in, even though not every accepted application results in a student enrolling, he said.

“As a system, we attracted far more interest this year in the form of increased applications than in prior years,” Placido said.

Additionally, more high school students from across the state are enrolling in early college programs with the system, which is promising, Placido said. Early college programs allow Maine students to take college courses while they are still in high school either for free or at a reduced cost.

Declining university enrollment is the result of multiple factors. Maine, with the oldest population in the country, has seen smaller high school graduating classes over time. Additionally, data from recent years show that fewer Maine students who do graduate from high school have been enrolling in college.

Some 59.6 percent of graduating high school students in Maine enrolled in college, down from 63.5 percent in 2015, according to data from the New England Secondary School Consortium.

“Every student we lose is money that was there last year to support all kinds of operations on the campuses,” Placido said. “But our board takes their fiduciary responsibility very seriously, and each of our universities maintains a balanced budget.”

To counteract this trend, the system has been investing in new and improved facilities on its campuses, including a new residence hall at the University of Southern Maine and a new home for the University of Maine School of Law, Placido said.

At the University of Maine, coaches are hoping that $110 million in athletic facilities upgrades, made possible with a $90 million donation from the Harold Alfond Foundation, will help them recruit student-athletes.

“We cannot continue to ignore the student experience and the health of our capital infrastructure,” Placido said. “So, really, more than in the last 10 years, we are diverting and investing with the help of our state partners. We are investing in the future of our universities.”  

The system has also turned to more adult learners.

But as enrollment dips, the university system will be challenged to keep tuition flat unless state funding keeps up with expenses, Placido said. The university system has kept tuition flat for in-state students for seven times in the past decade.

“My biggest worry is that we would have a change in leadership and there would no longer be the commitment to back those dollars, and in one year we would have to raise tuition dramatically to meet that gap,” Placido said. “That is a serious concern.”

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is a reporter covering Old Town, Orono and the surrounding areas. A recent graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he's worked for Vermont Public Radio, The...