Maine has emerged as a leader in helping students seamlessly transition from community colleges to state universities, defying a national trend that has troubled officials in other states.

The already low proportion of students nationally who transfer from community colleges to bachelor’s degree-granting universities fell by about 10 percent over the last two years, according to the Hechinger Report, a national news outlet that covers education. In part, that drop stems from an overall lower number of people going to college. But in Maine, the percentage of students who transfer from a community college to a four-year institution has declined by less — 6.8 percent — according to the University of Maine System.

It is getting increasingly difficult for students at community colleges nationally to transfer to four-year institutions, according to a new report by the higher education consulting firm HCM Strategists.

According to a 2018 report by the New England Board of Higher Education, Maine is one of only two New England states that have guaranteed transfer agreements between community colleges and the state’s universities, and course equivalencies, two key steps in ensuring students can transfer credits.

A $20 million program rolled out by Gov. Janet Mills in 2022 to provide two free years of community college to Maine students who graduated from high school between 2020 and 2023 is part of a collaboration between the Maine Community College and the University of Maine systems to boost the number of Mainers who seek out higher education.

“I would say that most of the transfer counselors at the community colleges, and most of the transfer admissions counselors at the UMaine System schools, think of ourselves as partners,” said Sharon Oliver, director of Transfer Admissions at the University of Maine.

Nationally, the other reason for a decline is the complicated process of transferring that creates an “an uphill battle” for the student, according to a new report by the higher education consulting firm HCM Strategists.

Other states, such as Rhode Island, provide community college students with few resources to ensure they can move seamlessly from a community college to a state-owned university. But in Maine, UMaine System chancellor Dannel Malloy said the Maine Community College System is seen as a feeder into his university system.

“In the long haul, having more students in the community college is better for us because it’s the second largest place we get our students from,” Malloy said in a December 2022 interview. “Their strength ultimately is one of our strengths.”

Since the community college system’s reshuffling and founding in 2003, its leaders have worked to form institutional partnerships with the University of Maine System, said Janet Sortor, vice president, and chief academic officer of the state’s community college system.

The partnership between the two institutions started with an initiative called “AdvantageU” — a streamlined, guaranteed credit transfer process from community college to a Maine public university for students enrolled in liberal studies.

That means students can transfer to a University of Maine System campus with essentially half of their course work completed to earn a bachelor’s degree at a fraction of the cost.

These agreements between the two higher education institutions, which number in the dozens, outline explicitly what courses at the community college level are equivalent to courses offered at the University of Maine System, according to Oliver.  

That means students at the community colleges can move directly after completion of a program to a University of Maine System school to essentially pick up where they left off, she said.

Within the two systems, over the last five years, 15.8 percent of the students that transfer from the community colleges come from Southern Maine Community College and go to the University of Southern Maine, according to the university system’s most recent transfer student report.

In the fall of 2021, 48.9 percent of all community college transfer students came from Southern Maine Community College, according to the report.

On average, students who transfer from the community college system to the UMaine System tend to be academically higher performing than students that start directly in the UMaine System, according to the system’s most recent transfer report.

In 2021, on average, Maine Community College students who transferred into the UMaine System had a 3.15 grade point average at the end of their first term, whereas first-time students at the UMaine System averaged a 2.78 grade point average.

One successful program is nursing, which has been a fast-growing and successful pathway for students, Sortor said.

“We are trying to get these populations of students who didn’t go to college to go to college, and to get a credential, to transfer in to get a baccalaureate degree,” she said. “We need all of these things. We don’t just need electricians and plumbers. And even in the health professions — not all of them will get a bachelor’s degree but nurses typically need one.”

Another key reason for the success is dual advising, which means students at the community colleges that have expressed their desire to transfer to a Maine university will get advice from both institutions at the same time, according to Oliver.

While only one semester into the state’s free community college program, the hope is that it will yield more transfers to the University of Maine System down the road, Oliver said.

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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...