PORTLAND, Maine — In an attempt to bring back 329 students who had enrolled at the University of Southern Maine but had not yet registered for classes this fall, almost 30 faculty, staff and students spent several hours on the phone Tuesday encouraging them to register before the Sept. 8 deadline.
The effort, which included contacting students who hadn’t registered the past two semesters, expands upon an effort by USM history professor Libby Bischof, who spends several hours per day in the summer contacting her advisees not registered for fall classes.
Increasing retention at USM has been stated as a priority for the newly appointed interim president, David Flanagan, as the university attempts to cut $15 million from its budget this year. Administrators say the cuts are necessary because of declining enrollment, flat funding from the state and a tuition freeze, paired with rising costs.
According to USM data, 65 percent of freshman students who enrolled for the first time in the fall of 2012 returned the following year. Only 33.5 percent of freshman students who enrolled for the first time in 2007 graduated within six years.
Flanagan called retention rates unacceptable when he was appointed as president in July, and in a statement sent out announcing Tuesday’s effort, he said, “We have great concern for those learners who have become sidetracked or stalled on their path to a degree. As a public university we must do all we can to get students back to class and back on track.”
The 28 participants in the telethon, which took place on both the Portland and Lewiston campuses, also called 357 of the 1,481 newly registered first-year and transfer students to ask if they needed help or direction with things such as where to park or the location of certain buildings, said Rodney Mondor, a coordinator at the student success center at USM. Faculty and staff also often connect with the students who they know will be majoring in fields within their department, he said.
“Being a new student, at a new university, especially if you’re not from the area, can be a lot to take in,” said Orrin Palmer, a sophomore who participated in the effort. He said that when you’re getting used to where everything is and how things work, it helps to talk to a real person.
“It’s very different from a high school environment,” said Margaret Moore, a lecturer for the math and statistics department who also participated. “We hope that they feel comfortable asking questions and asking for support.”
The 28 participants called 229 of the 329 nonregistered students on Tuesday, according to Mondor. That did not include students who have holds on their accounts and cannot register as a result.
In an op-ed in the Bangor Daily News, University of Maine adjunct professor Bruce Pratt, who also worked as an adjunct at USM from 2003 to 2009, argued that the low retention rate at the University of Maine System campuses was in part because of students’ lack of independence and “basic survival skills.”
“Advisers shouldn’t need to tell 20-year-old students when to register for classes,” he wrote.
On Tuesday, he said reaching out to unregistered USM students “can’t hurt.”
Maine State Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland also participated in the effort at USM.
“The legislature in this state really needs to have a very big conversation about funding for higher education,” he said Tuesday. “We haven’t kept up our part of the equation, not only in funding, but in what direction we want the University of Maine System to be moving.”