EDITORIAL

A more online, adult university system for Maine will have to come down to size

Michael Sonntag (center), University of Maine at Presque Isle provost and vice president for academic affairs, discusses the university'’s new online learning project UMPI OpenU during a 2012 press conference.
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Michael Sonntag (center), University of Maine at Presque Isle provost and vice president for academic affairs, discusses the university'’s new online learning project UMPI OpenU during a 2012 press conference.
Posted Nov. 24, 2013, at 11:37 a.m.

Are you one of the 200,000 or so Maine adults with some college credits under your belt but no degree? Then you’re a big part of the University of Maine System’s strategy for growing its enrollment in the coming years.

The system’s annual fall enrollment report released this week shows student numbers continuing to slide at most of the system’s seven campuses. This year, headcount dropped by 2.1 percent, to 30,365. Since 2008, it’s dropped about 7 percent.

There were bright spots: Enrollment is up in Orono and Fort Kent and among out-of-state students, and the system’s incoming classes this fall were also larger, in large part due to transfer students.

But if the system is to boast about more bright spots in the coming years, a push to entice more Maine adults who have earned some college credits without completing a degree to return to school will have to bear fruit.

With Maine’s universities dependent on adults to grow, the state’s university campuses will have to look different to serve them. And with two primary growth areas likely to be adult students and online courses, the campuses will likely have to grow smaller.

The University of Maine System recognizes that it needs to change to serve Maine’s adult population. A strategic plan for wooing more adult students released over the summer outlined some of those changes: More classes will need to be available online. Student services, like tutoring and financial aid, will need to be available to working adults outside of traditional working hours. And the universities will need 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.

As the university system adapts to a more adult population, its physical campuses — most of which have been built to serve residential students ages 18 to 22 — will also have to change. With part-time adult students less likely to live on campus and more likely to enroll in courses online, the University of Maine System’s campuses will inevitably have use for fewer buildings.

The university system is starting a strategic facilities review to identify which buildings Maine’s universities need long-term and which they don’t and how campuses can use their current buildings more efficiently. That review should emphasize investment in the facilities that support growing fields that are key to Maine’s economy and key to the universities’ individual brands.

Maine’s universities currently occupy 583 facilities that take up 9.4 million square feet and are spread across more than 3,800 acres.

There’s general consensus in the higher education world that college campuses in the future will likely grow smaller as more student learning moves online and adults come to represent a greater percentage of students.

That trend, however, doesn’t mean the physical college campus diminishes in importance. Its role simply changes. If traditional classroom lectures are replaced by online learning, the learning that takes place on campus will be interactive, hands-on and technology-intensive. Classroom spaces will have to be set up for that type of learning — which is also the type of learning that develops the communication, collaboration and technology skills employers generally seek in new hires.

What future classrooms should look like is a consideration the University of Maine System’s facilities planning team will have to take into account as it works on its recommendations for the university system’s physical future.

Planners who focus on higher education facilities for a living have some helpful advice the University of Maine System planners might want to incorporate. A recent edition of the American Council on Education’s magazine suggests a number of measures.

Among them: Mothball 10 percent of instructional space and yield operational savings as a result, or set a facilities policy that prohibits the net addition of space.

Maine’s universities have shrunk over the years, and any future growth they see likely won’t require a larger footprint or more facilities. Those guiding principles might be a helpful place to start as system planners look to a future that’s more online and more adult.

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