October 18, 2018
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Maine high school makes staff, sports cuts after foreign student enrollment drops

Courtesy of MCI
Courtesy of MCI
The Maine Central Institute campus in Pittsfield.

Faced with declining numbers of young Mainers and increased competition for international students, a private Maine high school is making cuts and looking for new ways to market itself.

Maine Central Institute, a 152-year-old school based in Pittsfield, is “reducing” some faculty, staff and administrative positions and cutting its freshman basketball program as well as fall and winter cheerleading. Headmaster Christopher J. Hopkins announced the changes in a March 30 letter to parents. He didn’t specify how many employees would be affected.

“While our budget realities are changing, MCI’s commitment to our mission is not,” Hopkins wrote. “MCI remains steadfast in our pledge to maintain excellence in all areas of student life.”

MCI officials attribute the budget cuts to dipping enrollment, prompted in part by declining numbers of young people and in part heightened competition for students from away.

The school of about 465 students relies heavily on boarding students, who typically make up about 25 percent to 30 percent of enrollment and are mostly international students, according to Clint Williams, MCI’s enrollment director.

Williams couldn’t say exactly how many international students the school aims for, because it varies year to year, but this year MCI brought in 75 international students, which is “not where we want to be.”

“If you’re used to enrolling a certain number of kids over the past 20 years, and then that stops happening, you have to make an adjustment,” he said.

MCI isn’t alone in its struggles. Across the state, Maine schools, both private and public, have been trying to cope with the state’s demographic challenges. Mainers over age 65 are expected to outnumber those under 19 by 2020. For many, the answer has been to court international students to maintain enrollment and draw in additional tuition revenue.

“That model worked well up until it didn’t,” Williams said.

Other states facing their own demographic challenges are also vying for international students. China has started building schools around Western education models to retain more of their kids. In response, schools started looking to other nations across Europe, Australia and South America for students, and soon saw competition growing there as well.

With so many institutions trying to attract international students, applications have begun to dry up in some places. Some administrators have said that a tense political climate in the U.S., protests, immigration crackdowns and negative international press have exacerbated the problem.

China is by far the largest well from which schools like MCI draws. Parents and students there place a high value on American education, and see the high school experience as an opportunity to prepare their child for a U.S. university.

Some public schools stepped into international education to soften the blow of demographic declines as well. Stearns High School typically brings in 10 to 15 international students, but struggled to attract students for the current school year. Just two enrolled for 2017-18, sparking worry about whether a prolonged decline in the program might force cuts.

Stearns predicts that its international enrollment could rebound next school year to around a dozen students, according to Superintendent Frank Boynton. The school doesn’t have dormitories, so it is looking for homestay families to host students for the year.

“I think this is the kind of program that fluctuates all on its own,” Boynton said. “Trends of the economy, interest levels, a lot of things play into it year over year.”

Boynton typically travels to China a couple of times a year to visit schools that Stearns partners with.

MCI is a regular visitor to international schools and school fairs as well, Williams said. He recently returned from a recruitment trip to China and Vietnam.

To boost recruitment, schools need to zero in on what’s special about the school, and push that message, he said. Among the benefits touted by every school in the state that hosts international students are low crime rates, natural beauty and clean air.

He’s also touting unique things about MCI in hopes of drawing students with specific interests and passions. He uses the example of MCI’s pre-professional ballet school, while other schools focus on robotics teams or proximity to the coast or universities.

“We’re as strong as we’ve ever been, we’re still providing an unbelievable opportunity for kids in spite of the challenges,” Williams said. “We’ve got to weather the storm and figure it out.”

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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