ORONO, Maine — After graduating from high school, Jason Seymour, 42, worked as an electrical motor mechanic in Bangor for 10 years, working on motors for the railroad system and at paper mills in the region, he said.
In 2012, he was laid off and did not feel hopeful about finding another job in his field because of the poor economy.
A friend told him about the Onward Program at the University of Maine, which is meant to help nontraditional students who may not have been in school for many years get into the state’s flagship university. For one year he took what he called “developmental courses in math, reading and the sciences to get up to the university’s standards” through the program and then matriculated into the nursing program, where he is now in his second year.
But after more than 40 years, the Onward Program will be eliminated at the end of the 2014-2015 school year and is no longer accepting new applicants.
A statement from the university cited “eroding enrollments; a large financial aid overlay that the university could use more effectively elsewhere; [and] a six-year graduation rate significantly lower than the rate for the general UMaine student population.”
It explained that the faculty who work for the Onward Program will be moved to other areas in the university, where they will serve more students.
The Onward Program’s 52 current students will continue to receive support through other advising resources available at the university, the statement said.
The statement also said that the program elimination helps the University of Maine System achieve its goal of having seven distinct universities, each with a different focus.
“The mission of the Onward Program is covered through the University of Maine at Augusta, particularly the Bangor campus,” the statement said.
As the university system has faced budget cuts, administrators have asked each university to define its mission and determine what makes it distinct from the other universities as a way to cut down on redundancies.
The University of Maine at Augusta will continue to focus on nontraditional students, like those who may enroll in UMaine’s Onward Program.
That means nontraditional students are being denied opportunities, according to Kimberly Hammill, 35, who attended the Onward Program in 2000 and graduated from UMaine with a degree in social work in 2005 before continuing on to earn a master’s degree.
As a regional director at the employment service provider, Work Opportunities Unlimited, where she worked before taking her current job at MAS Home Care of Maine, Hammill said she was often responsible for hiring people.
“I do not weigh a four-year degree in mental health and human services the same way I weigh a degree in social work,” she said, explaining the differences between the degrees offered at the two universities. A degree in social work, which is offered at UMaine, but not UM-Augusta, is a better qualification, she said.
She said that as a single, 19-year-old mother, enrolling in the Onward Program gave her access to a high quality education, even though she was not an honors student in high school.
“Onward takes students who are not scholars and turns them into scholars,” she said, explaining that she graduated with a 3.77 grade point average.
UMaine is in the process of cutting $7 million from its budget due to a budget shortfall that is affecting all seven universities in the system. Administrators have cited rising costs amid flat funding from the state, declining or stagnant student enrollment and a frozen tuition rate as reasons for the deficit.
The university will not see financial savings as a result of the loss of this program, rather the decision was made to optimize existing resources, said the university’s director of public relations, Margaret Nagle.
“There is not a cost savings per se, but greater academic needs being met with the reassignment of the Onward faculty,” she said.
Seymour said the loss of the Onward Program felt like the state’s flagship university was turning its back on nontraditional students — something he said was a problem at a time when mills are closing and many laborers will soon be looking for new fields of work to pursue.
“They’re moving in a direction away from nontraditional students, or students who have not been able to get in through the front door,” he said.