A University of Maine at Presque Isle student enters the university's Campus Center, Sept. 12, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

When Katy Desjardins graduated from high school, she initially gave college a shot. She attended the University of Maine in Orono and sat in lectures with dozens of other students all while working two full-time jobs.

She dropped out after a while without a degree to focus on her career. More than a decade later, Desjardins returned to school at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and walked away with two degrees she earned in 18 months — a bachelor’s in business administration in 2020 and a master’s degree in organizational leadership the next year.

“I felt like it was the first school that really recognized, valued and appreciated where I have come from and what I had done, what I had been learning before being at the university,” said Desjardins, who lives in Bangor.

Desjardins is one of the hundreds of nontraditional students UMPI has attracted since it rolled out its YourPace program in 2017, a completely online program that costs much less than a typical four-year institution and allows students to complete their courses as fast — or as slowly — as they want to.

Katherine Desjardins of Bangor, a member of UMPI’s Class of 2020, came to campus for the first time on May 7 to take part in the commencement ceremony. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / The Star Herald

UMPI’s ability to attract adult students through the program is part of the reason the Aroostook County campus is the only one of Maine’s seven public universities to have seen its enrollment rise this fall so far over last year.

UMPI has managed to buck a trend of declining college enrollment, both in Maine and nationally, with three years of steady enrollment growth. Some 1,218 students are enrolled this fall, up from 900 three years ago. And much of the growth has come from enrolling more adults, which the University of Maine System has identified as a priority if it is to recover from long-term enrollment drops in a state where graduating high school classes have grown smaller over time and a smaller portion of those who do graduate have been enrolling in college.

“I realized, as did everybody on the team here, and the faculty, that we could only support having a physical campus if we could also take away the geographical confines of our program options,” UMPI president Raymond Rice said.

As part of the broader University of Maine System, UMPI is often competing with the other campuses for undergraduates. But the pivot to cater to nontraditional, adult students who may have tried college but found that sitting in a classroom wasn’t for them gave UMPI an advantage, Rice said.

Signs adorn the campus of the University of Maine at Presque Isle, Sept. 12, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

“I saw that this was the best chance we had to have healthy growth whereas we hoped to maintain our enrollments, particularly with in-state students,” Rice said. “That took off during the pandemic.”

UMPI is the only public university in New England to offer YourPace. Students participate in condensed, eight-week sessions and pay a flat rate of $1,400 to $2,000 per session depending on the program.

During any given session, each student determines how much work they can get done. This flexibility and the program’s focus on students applying real-world knowledge to the course work are what appealed to Desjardins and ultimately made her successful, she said.

“I started looking around and everything was very traditional, and like, I’ve tried multiple traditional schools and none of them were going to be successful for me,” Desjardins said. “So when I found UMPI and the YourPace program, it sounded too good to be true. I was able to leverage what I knew from working from being 15 years in an industry.”

In May, Desjardins stepped foot on UMPI’s campus for the first time when she participated in a graduation ceremony for people who had earned degrees throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In full academic regalia, Desjardins was given her bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s in organizational leadership.

YourPace came about in an attempt to bolster UMPI’s enrollment as the university had fewer new high school graduates to draw from, especially in Aroostook County, Rice said.

Dr. Raymond Rice. Credit: The Star-Herald

“Even before the pandemic, there were patterns that were very obvious,” he said. “So we started engaging with competency programming, in particular, to engage adult learners.”

Another key bump in UMPI’s enrollment has come from the reopening of the border between the U.S. and Canada. UMPI has 62 students from Canada enrolled this semester, a 158 percent increase compared with the fall semester in 2020.

Signs adorn the campus of the University of Maine at Presque Isle, Sept. 12, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Aside from YourPace, Rice said he thinks the campus community at his university is something special.

“We call it an ‘ethic of care,’ that we consciously have embraced,” Rice said. “Any staff member, any faculty member, any administrator in regards to students – we prioritize the dynamics of the relationships and an understanding of where the individual is coming from.”

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Sawyer Loftus

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...