To combat the enrollment problem, the University of Maine System decided to freeze tuition — a good decision. It paid people to persuade foreign students to enroll — a tacky move. It paid deposed president Selma Botman $363,000 to write a report on attracting foreign students. The report was 39 pages, making the cost to taxpayers $9,308 per page — a poor investment.
Since the supply of 18-year-olds is not going to increase, and since the number of rich foreigners eager to come to Maine is finite, other strategy is urgently needed. Here is a proposed solution to the problem of dropping enrollments, based on 44 years experience in higher education as an administrator and a professor in four fields: Recruit Mainers over 60 to become full- or part-time students.
The Maine Senior College Network — providing noncredit courses taught by volunteers — is an excellent program that meets the needs of many Maine elders, but some of them want and can easily handle semester-long courses. Older people returning to college almost always make excellent students. They know what they want; they have good study skills; their life experience makes their classroom participation valuable; and their positive attitude is welcome.
At the University of Maine, I taught many students, especially women, who were too poor to attend college when they were 18 or too busy raising families to focus on their own educational needs. Back in school at age 40, 50, 60 or 70, they flourished. The discovery that they had the ability to do college work bolstered their self esteem. They inspired the 18- to 22-year-olds to take their classes seriously.
Many of the retirees who move to Maine have college degrees and time for serious intellectual pursuits. Some may even want to get a bachelor’s degree in a subject they were drawn to years ago but had no opportunity to pursue. A woman whose autobiographical essay I published, Lisa Asnis of Orono, completed her master’s in English in her 70s. This is unusual today but could become more common in the future, especially because of population aging.
Recent research about neurogenesis — the capacity of the brain to grow new cells — indicates that adults in their 70s and 80s can be just as capable of hard study as much younger people. According to research reported by Gene Cohen in “ The Mature Mind,” older adults use both hemispheres of their brains more efficiently than younger people. Other research demonstrates that although older learners taken in information a bit more slowly than 18- to 22-year-olds, they retain it just as well.
People who retire to Maine in the next 10 years will be looking for brain stimulation. They may want to take semester-long courses as well as senior college courses. Several students new to Maine who took classes from me at the University of Southern Maine first took senior college courses. In semester-long classes, such students can thoroughly explore topics that interest them. Like younger students, they make new friends during the semester.
Independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler has proposed attracting more young people to Maine with the hope that after college they will stay here and benefit our economy. This development is highly unlikely. Surely Cutler has noticed that many young people leave Maine as soon as they finish high school. The people who really appreciate Maine are those who have lived here long enough to discover its benefits (with the huge drawback of high taxes). Those people are already here. Recruiting them would not be expensive, compared with recruiting foreigners. One worker travelling to all corners of the state seeking older students could probably bring in a large number of them.
The obstacle is the ageist belief that college is not for older people.
College is a great place for people over 60, and if more Mainers figure that out, they may want to sign up for something more ambitious than senior college, beneficial as that is.
Nationally, the percentage of the college population over 24 is growing. That’s a long way from 60, of course, but it suggests that the old model of college for 18- to 22-year-olds has already become outdated.
Margaret Cruikshank is a faculty associate of the University of Maine Center on Aging and a former lecturer in women’s studies at the university. She is currently a Fulbright senior scholar in American Studies and Aging at the University of Graz in Austria.