The University of Maine at Presque Isle. Credit: Courtesy of University of Maine at Presque Isle

Just days before the start of the fall semester, enrollment remains on track to be much lower across Maine’s seven universities than in recent years. The decline in enrollment equates to less tuition revenue for a university system facing the prospect of years of multimillion-dollar budget deficits.

The number of applications to attend system universities rose this year, but the number that translated into committed, first-time students fell, Robert Placido, the University of Maine System’s vice chancellor for academic affairs, told system trustees Monday. 

Newly published data show that first-time student enrollment for the fall semester is about 15 percent lower than last year’s at the same time, meaning enrollment trends haven’t improved much since earlier in the summer

“In short, enrollments coming into the fall are lower than we projected, for sure,” Placido said. 

The university system estimates it will have 3,525 first-time students entering the system when classes begin next week. Last year at this time, the system’s estimate for its fall entering class was 4,143 students. 

The decline at Maine’s public universities matches a national trend of fewer students enrolling in college during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it continues a longer-term trend for the University of Maine System.

The trend has financial consequences for the University of Maine System, where tuition is the largest source of revenue, making up 49 percent of the system’s total revenue in the last fiscal year.

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. It even set an enrollment record last fall, but expects to see fewer students on campus this fall.

Only the University of Maine at Presque Isle and the law school are currently projected to see enrollment rise over last fall.

While the fall’s first-time ranks are about 15 percent behind last year’s levels, the overall student body is expected to be 5.7 percent smaller than last fall’s.

Currently, the UMaine system is projecting that 23,875 students — both full- and part-time — will enroll for the fall semester, down from the system’s estimate at this time last year of 25,315 students. 

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 55.2 percent of Maine high school students who graduated in 2020 enrolled in college, down from 63.5 percent in 2015, according to the New England Secondary School Consortium.

Each student lost represents dollars the system had last year at its disposal that no longer exist, Trish Riley, chair of the University of Maine System board of trustees, told state lawmakers in June. 

“This decline in enrollment means a decline in revenues, plain and simple,” she said. 

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...