When former University of Maine President Paul Ferguson announced his five-year strategic plan for the university system’s flagship campus in 2012, it came with the promise of “blue skies ahead.”

The plan — known as the Blue Sky Project — was the result of more than five months of planning that brought together more than 450 people from within and outside the university “to provide much needed direction for the next decade,” as Ferguson said in his inaugural address in 2011.

But while Blue Sky was described in its planning document as “some big thinking and some bold planning,” in many cases it recycled old ideas from prior strategic plans, including growing out-of-state and graduate student enrollment, supporting Native-American and Franco-American studies, and aligning academic work and research to meet the state’s economic needs.

Blue Sky differentiates itself from the other plans with a stronger emphasis on creating a fiscally sustainable operating model, especially through growing enrollment, but also through boosting student retention and graduation rates and growing the university’s research operations as a way to attract funding and royalty revenue from intellectual property development.

But so far, UMaine isn’t necessarily meeting all Blue Sky objectives in the enrollment arena — another similarity Blue Sky shares with past UMaine strategic plans.

Growth spurt

Blue Sky starts to lay out an enrollment management strategy at UMaine in order to “realistically increase the student body up to 15,000 students by 2017.” (UMaine’s current enrollment is closer to 11,000.)

The enrollment-boosting objective is nothing new to Blue Sky; it has been an integral part of past University of Maine strategic plans. The 2000-2005 strategic plan set the goal of increasing UMaine’s “‘market share’ of out-of-state students at both the graduate and undergraduate level” by 5 percent a year.

In 2000, there were 1,722 out-of-state students enrolled at UMaine, and by 2005 this population grew to 1,761 — a 2.3 percent increase over the course of the five-year plan.

The subsequent 2006-2011 strategic plan reiterated this call to “compete nationally for students” but did not set a specific enrollment goal.

Over the last five years, in-state enrollment has fallen at UMaine and across the University of Maine System. In 2010, there were 9,558 Mainers attending UMaine, according to the UMS 2014 fall enrollment report. By 2014, the number of Mainers at UMaine had fallen to 8,368 — a 12.5 percent decline.

With the Maine Office of Policy and Management forecasting that the population of Mainers under 25 will decline 9 percent from 2012 through 2032, it’s no surprise to see Blue Sky aim to draw more out-of-state students.

Since Blue Sky’s release, UMaine has seen out-of-state enrollment rise at a steady clip, from 1,943 students in 2010 to 2,918 in 2014 — a 50 percent jump. The Blue Sky goal was to grow the out-of-state student population so it makes up 25 to 30 percent of the student body. As of 2014, they comprise 26 percent.

Despite more out-of-state students enrolling, the overall student population has been slower to rise. When Blue Sky rolled out in 2012, the student population at UMaine had declined to 10,901 from 11,501 in 2010. But one year after Blue Sky’s release, it grew to 11,247. But that growth spurt slowed in 2014 when the student body only rose to 11,286, a far cry from the ambitious goal of 15,000 to which Blue Sky aspired.

While the 2013 freshmen class of 2,166 was the largest in UMaine’s history, the incoming class in 2014 contracted slightly to 2,063. Whether the incoming class has grown or shrunk in 2015 is not yet known.

Secret sauce for graduates

It’s not just out-of-state students UMaine wants to attract; UMaine also wants more graduate students. But so far, Blue Sky appears not to have developed the secret sauce for making UMaine more of a graduate student destination.

The goal to boost the ranks of graduates on campus also is not new. The 2000-2005 strategic plan, for example, aimed to “strengthen graduate education as a vital component of the university” and strove to increase the number of graduate students to 2,500 within five years. But the graduate student population never reached the 2,500 goal; it grew from 2,062 in 2000 to 2,256 in 2005.

(The 2006-2011 plan also sought to “increase graduate enrollment” but also did not specify a goal.)

Graduate enrollment later peaked at 2,385 in 2009 and since hasslipped to 1,947 as of 2014, the lowest it has been since the 1990s.

Under Blue Sky, the goal was for graduate students to eventually comprise 25 percent of the student body. But, according to the most recent UMS enrollment report, only 17 percent of the university’s students are graduate students.

A sustainable future?

While students from outside Maine bring different experiences and perspectives to the university, they also have the potential to be a financial boon at a time of systemwide fiscal struggles. Last year, out-of-state tuition and fees for a full-time student from outside New England totaled $40,282, compared with $23,102 for a Maine resident and $27,112 for a resident of any of the other five New England states.

For some time, the university system has coped with a stagnant state appropriation, which has left the seven universities relying more on tuition and fees paid by students. Attracting students from out of state has the potential to inject much-needed revenue.

At UMaine, for example, state appropriations in 1999 accounted for 63 percent of campus funds, while tuition and fees accounted for 37 percent. More than a decade later this has reversed, with state appropriations in 2014 accounting for 37 percent of campus funds and tuition and fees accounting for 63 percent.

In February 2014, Ferguson announced UMaine faced a $9.7 million budget gap, which he said was due to flat funding from the state, frozen tuition and increasing compensation for faculty and staff. UMaine closed this gap by eliminating 30 faculty positions — all of which were vacant or would have become vacant because of retirement and attrition — and cutting 31 nonfaculty positions, five of which involved layoffs. It used $5.3 million from the university’s savings to cover the rest.

Ferguson said at the time the budget gap initially had been $24 million but that initiatives the university implemented under Blue Sky — in particular, attracting more students from out of state — reduced the gap.

“If we had not been as successful bringing in new students, we would be in a world of pain,” Ferguson, now president of Ball State University in Indiana, said early last year.

Aside from raising more revenue through tuition, Blue Sky also aims to increase nontuition sources of revenue, such as sale and services. Those sources of revenue have grown from 5.6 percent of revenue in 2012 to 6.2 percent in 2014 — still short of the 10 percent goal.

Whether Blue Sky initiatives ultimately create long-term fiscal sustainability or become the basis for another, similar strategic plan at least for now remains to be seen.