An adult future for Maine universities

Rain starts to fall on students while they walk to the 2013 University of Maine, Orono graduation ceremony at Alfond Arena Saturday, May 11, 2013.
Brian Feulner | BDN
Rain starts to fall on students while they walk to the 2013 University of Maine, Orono graduation ceremony at Alfond Arena Saturday, May 11, 2013. Buy Photo
Posted July 17, 2013, at 11:34 a.m.

The University of Maine System wants more of Maine’s adults who have some college under their belt, but no degree, to resume their studies.

A specially appointed committee Monday released its recommendations for preparing Maine’s university system for a future with more adult students. Most campuses today are set up to meet the needs of traditional-age students who enroll immediately after high school.

The committee’s recommendations, unveiled at a meeting of the university system’s trustees, include a major marketing initiative to entice Maine adults who have abandoned their studies to re-enroll, training to help faculty members tailor their instruction to adult students, and a scholarship fund that specifically helps returning adult students.

The report speaks of offering more classes online and instituting a uniform tuition rate for online classes across the university system’s seven campuses. It discusses reaching out to workforce training programs to find prospective adult students and offering new academic programs that respond to the state’s current workforce needs.

And the document puts special emphasis on setting up student services, like tutoring and financial aid, so they’re responsive to working adults who can’t make it to the financial aid office between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. The report suggests a streamlined adult application that doesn’t ask students who finished high school long ago to supply a guidance counselor recommendation and list their high school activities.

The approach is a logical — and likely promising — one if the intent is to equip a greater portion of Maine’s residents with postsecondary degrees and to ensure the University of Maine System remains relevant in a state where the traditional college-age demographic is shrinking.

The university system estimates, based on U.S. Census data, that between 190,000 and 230,000 Maine adults have accrued some number of college credits — at any college or university, not necessarily at a Maine university — but dropped their studies before completing a degree. That number is substantial: The university system is talking about reaching out to about 15 percent of Maine’s population.

And national statistics point to a growing need for postsecondary degrees. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in 2010 projected that 59 percent of Maine jobs would require some form of postsecondary training by 2018.

Georgetown updated its analysis last month, and its latest numbers project 66 percent of Maine jobs will require postsecondary education by 2020. Yet on Maine’s current trajectory, according to Georgetown, just 59 percent of the state’s population will have some form of postsecondary training by the end of the decade.

And by 2030, according to state population projections, Maine’s 15- to 19-year-old population — the demographic colleges would typically look to for their next crop of students — is projected to shrink 16 percent from 2010 numbers.

If the University of Maine System is to maintain or grow its enrollments, and if the state is to equip a greater percentage of its residents with postsecondary degrees, those outcomes will depend on the universities’ ability to enroll and graduate more adult students.

But as the University of Maine System pursues this effort, it must avoid a few stumbling blocks.

“I don’t think we can simply take our current population and say, ‘Well, we’ll give you the education we can afford as opposed to the education you need, and good luck,’” says Charlie Colgan, a former state economist and a University of Southern Maine public policy professor, in a video on the BDN’s newly published MaineFocus website.

The university system would be wise to heed Colgan’s advice. Employers today need employees who can communicate effectively, collaborate and work well with technology. Perhaps most important, employers demand workers who can adapt to work environments that change frequently as technology changes.

The university system can’t expect to prepare adult students for a constantly changing economy by enrolling them in current programs without adapting those programs to emphasize the raw skills demanded by employers.

Employers want to hire those with on-the-job experience, too, so the university system should make all efforts possible to team up with businesses to allow students to gain credit — and wages — through internships and apprenticeships.

And the University of Maine System’s emphasis on enrolling new adult students doesn’t absolve it from its responsibility to improve the success rates of the students the system currently enrolls. According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, just two of the university system’s seven campuses have six-year graduation rates that exceed the national average of 58 percent.

Lastly, Maine lawmakers have invested in the university system’s efforts to attract more adult students. The new state budget that took effect July 1 includes $500,000 for scholarships for adults who re-enroll to complete their degrees, matching $500,000 in university funds.

That investment is wise, but policymakers can’t bank their hopes of developing a workforce prepared for the future economy on this and other higher education-oriented efforts. That effort involves more than the university system. It starts before birth, includes high-quality early childhood education, a rigorous public education system and an overall vision for the state’s future economy that guides workforce development efforts.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/07/17/opinion/an-adult-future-for-maine-universities/ printed on December 19, 2014