BANGOR, Maine — Lance Bradshaw, 22, has been supporting himself through lobstering since he was 16, but for a long time, he’s wanted something more.
So two years ago, in an attempt to chart a different path, the Deer Isle resident enrolled at the University of Maine to pursue a degree in engineering. He didn’t last.
“I did two semesters — if you can even call it two semesters,” he said. “I did one successfully. The second one I did terribly.”
Bradshaw is unsure why his grades plummeted in the spring, after he’d proven to himself in the fall that he was academically capable, but he has some ideas — starting with the pull of a lucrative income from pulling traps.
“That was during the lobster boom,” he recalled. “Knowing my friends and family were making a lot of money and I was on this different path trying to get a degree was difficult.”
He added, “After having had the good job, to put myself into a situation where instead of making money, I was accruing debt, was just scary.”
Bradshaw’s story is emblematic of a serious problem at UMaine: student retention. In 2012, he was one of about 287 students, or about 15 percent of the freshman class, who withdrew after one year, according to UMaine data.
While UMaine is touting its increasing freshman class, which grew from 1,809 students in the fall of 2010 to 2,169 students in the fall of 2013, according to last year’s annual report, the university’s total enrollment still shrunk by 300 students during that time.
If current trends persist, only between 55 and 60 percent of those students moving next week into freshman dorms or showing up for their first classes will graduate from UMaine within six years. Roughly 70 percent will still be enrolled after two years, and 65 percent after three.
Across Maine’s public, four-year universities, just 53 percent of students who started their freshman year in the fall of 2007 graduated within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Nationally, 63 percent of of the students who started at four-year, public institutions in 2007 graduated within six years.
The challenge of keeping students enrolled has been on the minds of University of Maine System administrators, amid budget cuts, frozen tuition rates and a shrinking population of students graduating from Maine’s high schools.
About $22.7 million was cut from the system’s seven campuses this year and $11.4 million was pulled from a rainy day fund to help campuses pay their bills. Administrators have said they will have to cut $69 million from the budget by fiscal year 2019.
Retention a ‘priority’
Keeping students enrolled in Maine’s public universities is not a new challenge. In 2003, the UMaine Faculty Senate voted to encourage individual colleges to create advising centers to address the issue. The following year, six advisers were hired to support freshmen.
Last year, UMaine announced a new housing policy that would keep more sophomores in on-campus dorms in an effort to improve retention.
UMaine Provost Jeff Hecker said retention has been a priority for his staff this year and that at the end of this month he would be releasing the “provost action plan on retention and student success.”
Susan Campbell, chief student success officer at USM, said in order for universities to improve retention, faculty and staff need to see themselves as advisers to students, which means a cultural change on campus.
“It’s really looking at the whole student and understanding that each of us, regardless of the role we play on campus, really serve as role models and we need to pay attention to the needs of students,” she said.
College completion has been presented not only as an issue of economic health for the university system, but for the state as a whole. Degree-holders are more likely to be employed, according to Maine’s Department of Labor.
Mainers with bachelor’s degrees average 75 percent higher earnings than those with only a high school degree, says a report released in May by the Maine Development Foundation, the University of Maine and the Maine Economic Growth Council.
Meanwhile, only about one in three Mainers above the age of 25 have an associate degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The fact that about half of Mainers who start college do not finish means there are many in the state who’ve incurred debt in pursuit of higher education, but don’t have a degree to show for it.
That was wildlife ecology major Kayla Clewley’s fear.
Many reasons for leaving
Clewley, 19, finished her freshman year at UMaine this spring and does not plan to go back.
“Right now I have almost $10,000 in debt towards a major that I’m not really sure I wanted to do,” she said in early August. “I’m not really proud of my grades.”
Clewley has a learning disability and had a hard time getting the appropriate accommodations at the 9,000-student university, she said. As a result, her grades suffered and this summer, she received a letter saying she was placed on academic probation.
Clewley said she is currently working at T.D.’s Pizzeria in Brewer. She plans to go into the Air
Force because she likes the job opportunities associated with that path and because she could get her student debt forgiven.
“I’ll feel proud of what I’m doing,” she said.
USM is undergoing a systematic effort to reach out to students to avoid letting what happened to Clewley happen to others.
“Right now and for the next two weeks the single most important thing faculty members can do is to personally, directly call and contact past students who have not signed up to return in the fall,” USM President David Flanagan wrote to Faculty Senate President Jerry LaSala this month.
Not every student interviewed for this story had financial reasons for leaving one of the system’s universities, nor did they all drop out of college entirely.
Recent data tracking students who started college in the fall of 2007, which was reported in the Washington Post, showed that 12 percent of those who enrolled at UMaine and 27 percent who enrolled at USM graduated from a different school within six years.
Christina Li, a biology major from Portland, transferred to Boston University from USM because she felt there were better opportunities for research there. She is 20 and is now going into her junior year.
Nicole Damboise of Burlington, Connecticut, transferred to Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. She wanted to major in equine business management, which wasn’t offered at UMaine, where she spent her freshman year.
Robert Kiehn of Caribou attended USM as a theater major for the 2011-2012 school year, but left after running into some financial trouble.
When he decided to go back to school, he enrolled at Gordon College in Massachusetts.
“I was looking for an environment that excited me a little more, where things were going on,” he said. “There’s not much going on in Gorham, Maine.”
Kiehn did not stay at Gordon College either. He’s now working in Calgary, Alberta, at a pizza place and is not sure what he’ll do next.
High school guidance counselors and education professionals say that often seemingly simple obstacles prevent students from earning a degree.
“What I find disheartening and sometimes heartbreaking is that from my perspective, some of the issues that are preventing students from staying the course are simple to fix,” said Wendy Ault, executive director of the Melmac Education Foundation, an organization that awards grants to high schools to encourage students to go to college.
Ault said she’s heard stories of students feeling homesick, not being able to figure out how to register for classes, not liking a roommate, encountering unexpected expenses, such as broken car parts or the cost of books. These seemingly small barriers accumulate and can encourage students to go home, especially students who are first generation college-goers.
“Too often they go to college and return to their hometown and work in the same job they had when they were in high school,” she said.
That is what Bradshaw has done. After one year at UMaine, he went back to lobstering.
“I would love to do something else,” he said. “It’s hard to break away from what I’ve known my whole life. It sounds great to have a job that you feel is rewarding.”
But, he added: “I don’t have any transferable skills.”
Bradshaw said he sometimes regrets his decision not to stay at UMaine, but he doesn’t see himself returning anytime soon. Instead, he encourages the 15-year-old who works on his boat to go to college.
As for the lobster boat, where he begrudgingly spends about a third of his time, Bradshaw has named it “Keep Dreamin.”