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ORONO, Maine — Chris Richards took in the scene around him and breathed a sigh of relief.

It was the first day of freshman orientation at the University of Maine, and students were arriving in droves.

For Richards, who as vice president of enrollment management is in charge of recruiting each new class, “this is kind of a celebration of the hard work we do.”

It’s been much harder work here than in many other places. With the highest median age of any state, Maine has seen an estimated 10 percent decline over the last 10 years in its number of new high school graduates — precisely the people Richards needs.

New students checking in at freshman orientation at the University of Maine get nametags are color-coded to show which state they came from among those where the university aggressively recruits. Credit: Molly Haley for The Hechinger Report

Yet UMaine has managed to increase its undergraduate enrollment during that period by about 5 percent. And the state’s community colleges, which depend on the same dwindling supply of learners, are reporting record numbers of applications for the fall.

The university has done this by luring out-of-staters with in-state tuition prices and by breaking with long-standing attitudes through which higher education sometimes alienates rather than embraces prospective applicants.

Meanwhile, the community colleges have been offering training that’s comparatively cheap or free, faster paced than typical credential programs and at places and times convenient for people who have families and jobs.  

Now the enrollment crisis with which Maine has been contending for a decade has caught up with much of the rest of the country, forcing universities and colleges in other states to consider similar changes or risk empty classrooms and the financial repercussions that come with unfilled seats.

Incoming freshmen at the University of Maine pick up information about student clubs. The university departs from traditional practice by involving all its faculty and staff in recruiting students. Credit: Molly Haley for The Hechinger Report

“I do think there are lessons to be learned from what’s going on in Maine right now,” said Jerome Lucido, executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. “They’re taking care of their reality. The question is whether everybody else will do that.”

Maine’s reality hit home about a decade ago, when the supply of new high school graduates began to fall, even as it was continuing to rise in the rest of the country.

Related: Another million adults ‘have stepped off the path to the middle class’

So stark has been this drop-off, especially in rural areas, said Richards, that “I can go to a high school and have nine people come to see me, and that’s the whole senior class and half the juniors.”

Since UMaine once got 80 percent of its students from within the state, according to university officials, that was a big problem. But it was tough to lure more out-of-staters to this leafy campus of red brick with white trim, so far north that a good-natured chant at hockey games includes the verse, “It might be 10 below under four feet of snow but no matter where we go, we love Orono.”

So the university reworked its financial aid to charge many applicants from out of state, at most, the equivalent of the same tuition they would pay to attend the least expensive programs of their home-state flagship universities.

Billboards advertising the deal sprang up around New England. “Go to the University of Maine for the in-state cost of UMass,” said the ones in Massachusetts, for example. The proportion of students from out of state doubled, according to the university, boosting overall enrollment and bringing in revenue that helped keep tuition comparatively low.   

“This is so much cheaper. Even the deposit was cheaper,” said Cinnamon Adams, who works as a public university administrator in Connecticut, and came to the freshman orientation with her daughter, Carissa.

Incoming student Carissa Adams of Connecticut with her mother, Cinnamon Adams, at freshman orientation at the University of Maine. They were drawn in part by the low price the university offers to lure students from neighboring states. Credit: Molly Haley for The Hechinger Report

Another change appeared to be equally important: enlisting everyone on campus, and not just admissions officers, in the job of recruiting students.

Since Orono, for many, is so hard to get to from there they live, the athletics department hosts prospective students at away games. The alumni association produced a report showing the much higher incomes graduates earn compared to people without degrees, and invites high school seniors to tour the campus during the spirited homecoming weekend — which, not coincidentally, usually occurs amid colorful peak fall foliage — rather than at other, quieter times. Dining hall workers are even instructed to overlook the instances when visiting applicants misplace their meal vouchers.

“So many institutions have relied on their admissions office. That model isn’t going to work any more,” said Richards.

“It doesn’t mean that [faculty and staff] have to go down to the admissions house and read a bunch of applications,” he said. “It could be a researcher who goes to the local high school to give a presentation. It happens when you see a person walking on the campus and ask them if they need help finding something. People want that.”

And they notice when it happens.

Related: Colleges’ new solution to enrollment declines: Reducing the number of dropouts

At other universities she visited, said Em Jeffrey, an incoming UMaine freshman from New Hampshire, she “felt like a number. Their reputations have inflated their own opinions of themselves. It’s not about, ‘We want to have you.’ It’s, ‘You would be lucky to get to come here.’ ” 

By comparison, said Jeffrey, who plans to major in civil engineering, at the University of Maine the dean of engineering personally gave her a tour. It included a new engineering building nearing completion that is part of an ambitious plan to double the number of engineering graduates from all Maine public universities and help fill a looming shortage in the state.

“I definitely felt more welcomed,” Jeffrey said. “None of it felt forced.”

Em Jeffrey, an incoming University of Maine freshman from New Hampshire, says she “felt like a number” at other campuses she visited. At UMaine, by comparison, the dean of engineering personally took her on a tour. Credit: Molly Haley for The Hechinger Report

That’s not a heavy lift in a state where strangers wave at passing cars and at a university where traditions include the omnipresent “warm and friendly” “Maine hello” with which students and alumni greet each other, and where students, faculty and staff volunteer each spring for a campus cleanup. 

Those who work here get how important it is to their own jobs that students keep coming, Richards said — especially in a part of the country where that’s been so much of a challenge for so long. “A lot of this is about making people understand that enrollment is why universities exist.” But there’s also no denying the effectiveness of it, he said. “If you’re an accepted student and the dean of engineering shows up to speak to you himself, that’s a big deal.”

Making the admissions process seem welcoming instead of intimidating and confusing is a surprisingly big culture shift in higher education.

“They’ve flipped the script on college admission,” said Lucido. At many other universities and colleges, he said, “the public understands college admission as something at which they probably won’t be successful,” persuaded by universities and colleges to think the odds are against them. Many never roll the dice. 

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There are also some less enviable ways that UMaine has continued to attract students. It’s gotten less selective, for example, accepting 92 percent of applicants. That’s up from 83 percent in 2014, the earliest year for which the figure is available from the U.S. Department of Education. 

Despite this, the proportion of students who drop out — another problem that affects enrollment — is lower than the national average.   

“Some students are going to come in not as prepared, and you have to be willing to spend the time to give them a high level of success,” said John Volin, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost.

Just as with recruiting them, keeping students from leaving involves everybody on the campus, Volin said. “It’s everyone’s job,” he said. “If they get that sense of belonging, it’s very likely that students will remain enrolled.”

John Volin, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Maine, oversees efforts to keep much-needed students from dropping out. “If they get that sense of belonging, it’s very likely that students will remain enrolled,” he says. Credit: Molly Haley for The Hechinger Report

A few miles away, at Eastern Maine Community College, or EMCC, students were taking an exam to become certified surgical technologists — the people who assist in operating rooms — in a program that can take as little as 16 months. Outside in a parking lot, others were learning how to pilot tractor-trailer trucks. 

Facing the same demographic realities as the state’s flagship university, Maine’s community colleges have also changed. And while they serve a different population than the university, they’ve kept their numbers up by doing something similar: giving students what they want.

“There was a period where all we had to do was open our doors and students came. Now the tables have turned and it’s a situation where, ‘Listen, we need you as much as you need us. Let’s figure out how we work this out together,’ ” said David Daigler, president of the Maine Community College System.

The colleges have used $60 million in state and private funding to add noncredit short-term training that students need to get or change jobs, and speeded up some for-credit courses by offering them for more hours per week. That gets people their credentials more quickly in a labor market that wants workers fast, such as Portland’s red-hot restaurant sector. 

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“Up until the past couple of years higher education felt like we were doing the students a service — that they had to come to us,” said Stacy Green, admissions director at EMCC. “What we’ve learned is they don’t have to come to us. They’ll go elsewhere or nowhere at all.”

The schools have also forged agreements with 230 employers around the state to fast-track training for specific jobs that are open and available when students finish, a system spokeswoman said. They’ve offered in-person classes far from their campuses, in remote rural communities where students live and where there is a huge demand for graduates with skills including nursing.

For their many students who also work, they’ve added hours for administrative offices, made counseling services available remotely, scheduled “welcome days” on Saturdays as well as weekdays, cross-trained staff so people can get the answers to all of their questions in one call and added classes after hours and on weekends for in-demand nursing programs and people in those short-term training courses.

“These are students who have families and they’re working other jobs,” said Tisha Clark, who runs the surgical technology program at EMCC, as she put away the scrubs and other equipment in the lab where an exam had just taken place. One of Clark’s former students, for example, would come to class right after working the night shift and before going home to see her kids. 

In April, the state made two years of community college free for full-time students from the high school classes of 2020 through 2023, which has resulted in a surge of applications, registrations and deposits for the fall — up 171 percent at EMCC, for instance, among students who qualify, according to Green. An estimated 8,000 are eligible statewide. 

Free tuition isn’t always such a game changer. In Tennessee, which made community college free in 2014, enrollment stayed more or less flat before falling significantly when the pandemic hit. 

In Maine, however, the temporary free-tuition scheme has coincided with high inflation and economic worry, channeling more students into community college as a way to save money by earning some credits at no cost toward eventual bachelor’s degrees, community college officials speculate.

It’s also been accompanied by a marketing blitz and against a backdrop of the “help wanted” signs prospective students can see everywhere for jobs they know require some kind of educational credential beyond a high school diploma.

Riley White, who is studying digital graphic design at Eastern Maine Community College, who qualifies for temporary free tuition. “I won’t be paying off student loans for the next 40 years,” he says. Credit: Molly Haley for The Hechinger Report

“A lot of it is just how the country is. Housing costs are getting higher, the prices of everything are rising. So you need a better-paying job,” said Riley White, who is studying digital graphic design at EMCC. Meanwhile, he said, “There’s a lot of technical jobs around here that fit with this college.”

White qualifies for the no-tuition plan, which, he said, exaggerating only slightly, means “I won’t be paying off student loans for the next 40 years.”

Related: As businesses hunt for educated workers, states are loosening the purse strings for higher ed again

The upshot of all of this is that, in spite of the singular demographic challenges of fewer Maine 18-year-olds, enrollment at the state’s community colleges had almost returned to 2011 levels by the time Covid-19 hit and since then has fared better than the national average. When students in noncredit short-term training are added, enrollment is actually up by a respectable 12 percent since the start of the pandemic, according to figures provided by the system. 

“Our students have had a tough go during the pandemic, and there’s an empathy for what that student had to endure and an attitude on campus, ‘You stay with us, we’ll stay with you, and we’re all going to be better in the end,’ ” said Daigler.

“We’ve been nimble. We’ve reacted in hours rather than months to changes that we see,” he said. “We’ve been very responsive to people’s needs.”

Arriving students pick up swag at the University of Maine freshman orientation. Credit: Molly Haley for The Hechinger Report

Now Maine college and university administrators are bracing for what they say will be an even more challenging time: the next 15 years, when the number of new high school graduates in the state is projected to drop by yet another 7 percent.

This time, though, those administrators in Maine are not alone. The number of new high school grads is forecast to fall by 5 percent nationally during that time. Undergraduate enrollment nationwide has already plummeted by more than 9 percent since the start of the pandemic, or by 1.4 million students, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Community colleges have been particularly hard hit, with their number of students down by nearly 17 percent.   

“Unless you’re an elite college, you’re going to have enrollment problems,” Lucido said. “We’re going to see some intense competition. Already Maine is using price competition. How many institutions will be able to afford that?”

UMaine now has recruiters spending eight to 10 weeks a year in Florida, Texas and other markets with larger numbers of prospective applicants. It’s hired a Spanish-speaking admissions officer.   

“I’m more concerned about the next wave, because you’re seeing the decline in our new fishing spots, so to speak,” said Richards as the arriving freshmen prepared to file across the quad and through the open mouth of an inflatable black bear mascot to a picnic lunch. Universities elsewhere, he said, aren’t going “to just lie down and let us keep taking their kids.”

Chris Richards, vice president of enrollment management at the University of Maine, in front of the university’s new engineering building — one of its weapons in the war for students. Credit: Molly Haley for The Hechinger Report

But Daigler isn’t as convinced that universities and colleges in other states have recognized the problem that they’re up against.

“When I go out and talk to colleagues nationally, I don’t see the kinds of changes coming that we’re making,” he said. “I hear people talking about tweaking around the edges. I don’t think this is an environment where tweaking around the edges is going to work.”

That’s one advantage Maine has, after a decade of enrollment challenges, said Richards: understanding, from experience, how serious the problem is.

“The good thing for us,” he said, “is that our leadership hasn’t existed in a vacuum of false reality.”

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Jon Marcus writes and edits stories about, and helps plan coverage of, higher education. A former magazine editor, he has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Wired, Medium.com...

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