MACHIAS, Maine — The University of Maine at Machias appears to have it all: scenic Down East beauty, a modern, spacious campus with a state-of-the-art health center, a diverse student body, quality academics, and a solid relationship with the surrounding communities.
But between 2003 and 2005, the campus was hit with a perfect storm of difficulties.
“First we suffered the death of a sitting president, then we had a complete turnover of the admissions staff, and a year later we were threatened with closure, or, at the least, consolidation,” UMM President Cindy Huggins said Friday.
The results staggered the school.
“In 2005, our freshman class had declined by 50 percent,” she said.
Over the past four years — aided by the relief last fall of not having to share in $6 million in state budget cuts with the University of Maine campuses at Fort Kent and Presque Isle — UMM has slowly rebuilt itself into a lean, efficient campus that has turned its focus to recruitment.
“There has been a reduction over the years in faculty and staff to fit our reduced student body,” Huggins said. “Now, our biggest struggle is how to grow enrollment. Our primary mission is to serve Washington County, but to survive, we have to diversify our student body.”
Huggins said UMM’s students are generally first-generation college students, and Washington County is “an economy not connected with higher education.”
To complicate matters, an aging population in Washington County has diminished the numbers of high school graduates in each of the last four years.
“We need to bring out-of-state transfers here,” Huggins said. “We can’t survive on only Washington County high school graduates.”
To raise enrollment, UMM has adopted a brand as an environmental-liberal arts college. “This puts a name on what we have been doing all along,” she said.
Efforts are also under way to expand the school’s athletic programs, and courting transfers from the country’s exploding community college system. Extra resources have been put into marketing, with the recent hiring of a new webmaster, director of marketing and admissions director.
“We think we have a really powerful trio of young professionals,” she said. “We also have three full-time admissions counselors — all recent UMM graduates — right on the front lines.
“Once we can get them here, they tend to stay,” she said.
UMM has 1,000 students, with 250 of them living on campus.
“About 30 percent of our students are invisible but a very important part of our school,” she said. “They are online students. About 20 percent of our students come from outside Maine.”
UMM’s student retention rate is 74 percent, above the national average of 70 percent. Retention of out-of-state students is at a whopping 80 percent.
“The bonus is that often they tend to stay in the area after graduation,” she said.
Huggins said some resources also have been shifted to online recruiting.
“The students that come here from outside the Northeast are not recruited in a face-to-face visit,” she said. “They found us online and liked what they saw.”
UMM also is reaching middle school students with its message.
Eight different summer camps — from basketball to art, drama and marine science — bring in a small amount of revenue, she said, but “make no mistake about it, these camps are a recruitment tool. If we can get middle school students here, especially overnight, they will think of us when they are ready to make a college decision. And you better believe we’ll keep in touch with them.”
Huggins said increasing enrollment is both the key to UMM’s survival and its top priority.
“We are cautiously optimistic,” she said. “Our plan is a good one, and it’s starting to take hold. But we need to keep working and not relax.”