While declining enrollment continues to plague many community colleges across the country, preliminary figures at Maine’s community colleges show a 6.3 percent increase in fall-to-fall enrollment. That amounts to about 950 more students, for a total of 16,313 fall headcount.
Each of the seven community colleges in the Maine Community College System (MCCS) have seen increases. Eastern Maine Community College saw the largest increase at 10.4 percent (202 students), for a total of 2,141 students. Southern Maine Community College — the system’s biggest college — followed with an 8.2 percent increase (460 students), to 6,078 students.
Final figures will be released later this fall. Historically, the system sees an additional 700 to 1,000 students enroll between now and October 15, partly because hospitality programs start later to accommodate students and industry partners, according to MCCS.
MCCS has seen a steady increase in enrollment dating back to 2002. It started losing enrollment in 2012, when the growing economy started to pull prospective students toward available jobs. Since then, the system has seen a steady decline — a 7 percent drop in total fall headcount between its high-point of 17,911 students in 2011, to 16,622 students in 2018.
New approaches to new students
The enrollment increases are due, in part, to a focus on attracting and retaining more students, according to system officials. Among its efforts to bring in traditional college-age students:
- Double the number of visits to some high schools
- Replace group orientations with one-on-one orientation sessions
- Reach prospective students through texting instead of email
- Add new high-demand programs including plumbing, HVAC and eSports
- Give students new online tools to communicate with others to increase peer-to-peer connections
Another population that the system is watching closely are returning students — those who at one point attended a community college, “stopped out” for some reason and now are coming back, said MCCS President David Daigler.
“They see they need a degree to get ahead,” he said.
To help them come back and stay, the system’s colleges have staff to direct them to services that can assist with food, housing, transportation, daycare and other challenges that can derail students from their education.
The system also did not increase tuition — which is $94 a credit hour — for the new academic year, which remains the lowest for tuition and fees in New England. A two-year associate degree for Maine students attending full-time averages $3,700 a year in tuition and fees.
Leveraging short-term training
At the same time, the system is expanding short-term training programs to address the needs of local industries and to help workers skill up for better-paying jobs, Daigler said. It is especially attuned to reaching workers who are “underemployed,” meaning that they could be working in higher-wage jobs if they had the right skills, he said.
In the last year, the number of trainees who completed short-term training programs funded by the MCCS Maine Quality Centers (MQC) program has almost doubled to 1,602, up from 897 in the previous year. MQC works with Maine employers to provide customized training that is free to trainees and focused on strengthening the skills of the state’s workforce.
For example, Bath Iron Works partnered last year with MCCS to create a free training program to develop a pipeline of workers. At a time when its veteran workers are starting to retiree, coupled with a shortage of available skilled workers, the company needed 1,000 new employees to fulfill five ship-building contracts.
MCCS is developing similar programs with other industries, including healthcare and information technology. But sometimes that’s still not meeting the demand from industry or students. In its logging program, for example, the system had 15 seats available for its third cohort of students; 55 people had to be turned away.
Building on a foundation
Last year, MCCS received a $3.6 million grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation to expand and strengthen short-term training for both incumbent workers and those seeking to enter the workforce. The system also received a $420,000 grant from KeyBank to support new short-term training initiatives in key Maine industries: healthcare, information technology, construction, manufacturing and the trades.
That funding helped to build the foundation for the system to develop a better outreach campaign, which has been very successful, Daigler said. The number of students in short-term training programs could soon exceed 4,000, he said, which is why he plans to ask state lawmakers for a significant increase in funding for those programs.
Industry has stepped up to help, too, by providing $4 million in training equipment and even offering stipends to students to take classes. The stipends allow workers who can’t afford to leave their jobs to “make the leap” to attain the skills needed for a better-paying job, Daigler said.
He added that the goal is to keep those workers coming back, adding to their credentials, hopefully earning a degree and continuing to upgrade their skills. Today, education is about lifelong learning, he said.
“It’s not a one-and-done plan,” he said.