University of Maine students walk across the campus' mall in October of 2019. Credit: Courtesy of the University of Maine

Maine’s universities are preparing to welcome a new crop of students in the coming weeks who could have some of the most demanding academic needs yet after COVID-19 disrupted the majority of their high school years.

The University of Maine System is estimating it will have about 3,500 new first-year students spread among its seven universities when the fall semester begins, one of the smallest entering classes in years. What sets this group apart is that these students have been through three school years disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic that forced schools at first to go fully remote, then repeatedly disrupted students’ and teachers’ schedules as in-person classes resumed.

Those disruptions across the country have caused students to fall behind in core subject areas such as reading and math. The degree to which these losses have affected how prepared students are for college is still unknown.

“The reality is that we understand that this particular freshman class, or first-time class, has had the worst of it, quite frankly,” University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy said. “Three of their four years of high school have been affected by the COVID experience, and we are worried about it.”

A key part of the University of Maine System’s response is setting up students with experiences that connect them closely with their new campus communities to make students more likely to seek help when they need it, Malloy said.

The University of Maine last year started a program called Research Learning Experiences that gives first- and second-year students hands-on opportunities and instant connections as soon as they walk on campus, UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy said.

They’re hands-on classes in which small groups of students get to know each other and a faculty member well and work on fundamental skills they need for college. This fall, course options include academic reading and writing, and an engineering class that lets students explore 3D printing and offshore wind.

“The program is fully designed to meet students where they are and to take them from where they are into feeling like they really are ready for college and that they will have the attention that they need,” Ferrini-Mundy said. 

The classes are funded in part by a grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation, she said. 

Campus leaders are also telling professors that they may need to change how they teach to help students succeed. Additionally, the system has expanded its mental health services and advising capacity, Malloy said. 

“We’re upping our game with respect to counseling and advisement,” he said, “and, quite frankly, speaking to the faculty to try to prepare them for the difference.”

Another change aimed at helping struggling students is letting students retake courses they’ve failed at no cost, Ferrini-Mundy said.

Other Maine students may opt to take advantage of two years of free community college instead of enrolling in a four-year institution like UMaine after the disruption of their high school years.

High school students graduating in 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023 who enroll full time at one of Maine’s seven community colleges this fall and next attend for free thanks to $20 million in Gov. Janet Mills’ supplemental budget that passed in April. The state program covers costs that existing scholarships and financial aid don’t cover.

So far, Maine’s community college system has seen an increase in applications for the fall as a result. 

While this fall’s entering class will be unlike any other pandemic-era class, Malloy said he has faith these students will thrive. 

“It does remind me of raising kids who lived through the 9/11 experience, and we all thought they would be very damaged by that experience,” Malloy said. “The reality is that they are more resilient because of that experience. So there is a potential challenge for these students, but these are students who have already risen to the challenge over the last three years.”

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...