June 23, 2018
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The wasted potential at Maine universities

By Stephen Weber, Special to the BDN

You remember the great slogan of the United Negro Fund: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” That phrase was coined in 1972, long before the Internet and mobile devices, long before the rise of international competition in places such as China and India, before forests were managed with mathematics, back when only 9 percent of U.S. jobs required a bachelor’s degree.

In 2007 that percentage rose to 21 percent. The Center on Education and Workforce at Georgetown University estimates that by 2018, 34 percent of U.S. jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or better.

And yet Maine’s public universities continue to contract. Ten years ago, total full-time-equivalent enrollments in the University of Maine System were 23,938; in 2012 they were 22,993. The system predicts that they will decline to 21,182 by 2020.

Indeed, in presenting its 2013 budget, the governing board notes that:

“Maine’s 15 to 24 year old population will decline 19.5% between 2010 and 2020. Maintaining current enrollments will be challenging and will require our universities to work differently in order to retain and attract more students.”

But where is the evidence of the system actually “working differently”?

Perhaps, if one were to actually “work differently,” the best place to start would be by successfully guiding the precious students the system has to graduation. We cannot produce more 19 year olds; we can produce more graduates.

Presently, the University of Maine System’s six-year graduation rates (the national standard of comparison) are as follows: Orono, 60.4 percent; Southern Maine, 32.9 percent; Augusta, 16 percent; Farmington, 59.4 percent; Fort Kent, 33.3 percent; Machias 37.7 percent; and Presque Isle, 29.8 percent, according to the Education Trust.

In fall 2004 the University of Maine System had 4,215 first-time, first-year students. Those students had a combined six-year college graduation rate of 48.5 percent — ranking Maine’s public universities 34th among the states. If Maine’s public universities had graduated students just at the rate of the national average (56 percent) they would have produced an additional 316 graduates. That is more baccalaureate graduates than were generated last year by the University of Maine at Machias (92), Fort Kent (125) or Presque Isle (218).

If Maine’s public universities’ graduation rates had matched its high schools’ graduation rate by ranking 11th among the states — where Pennsylvania ranks instead with a 62.1 percent six-year graduation rate — they would have produced an additional 573 graduates – more than the University of Maine at Augusta (362) or Farmington (418). These are not just numbers; they could represent transformed lives, better able to contribute to Maine’s society and economy.

But, you say, Pennsylvania is rich; Maine is poor. Perhaps, but in 2011, the residents of Pennsylvania each spent $157.89 to support public higher education; Maine citizens spent $200.36 per capita.

So, what is wrong? Instead of investing in a bloated, redundant, self-perpetuating system bureaucracy, Pennsylvania invests in its students and their success.

The human waste perpetuated by the University of Maine System is appalling. Students who spend a year — or two or three — at our public campuses only to withdraw do so without significantly improved job prospects and the income-earning potential of a baccalaureate degree. Moreover, they have incurred costs of tuition, perhaps room and board, perhaps college debt.

Not only have students who dropped out received a poor return on their investment. So, too, have the taxpayers of Maine. One year spent unsuccessfully in a university adds little to the skill base of either a student or Maine’s workforce.

More fundamentally, data suggest that university graduates are healthier, live longer, and make, on average, greater contributions to our society. All this is to say that the stakes are high.

How could human capital be saved and nurtured for the future benefit of Maine? We need to support more programs for low-income, disadvantaged students. We need more counseling and tutorial support, “summer bridge” programs for incoming freshmen, mandatory freshman orientation, individually tailored maps to graduation, an “early warning” for students experiencing academic difficulty, and a “bounce back” program to support students on academic probation.

This is not rocket science; it is the science of student success.

Stephen Weber is the former president of San Diego State University. He retired to Hancock, Maine, two years ago.

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