Following about a decade of steady growth in the number of students at Maine’s community colleges and a corresponding drop at the state’s public universities, the enrollment patterns have flipped in recent years.
Enrollment at Maine’s seven community colleges has been declining since 2011, after almost a decade of steady growth. The state university system, meanwhile, saw its total enrollment increase this past fall for the second time since 2016, which marked the end of a 13-year enrollment decline.
Compared with all state university and community college systems in New England, the University of Maine System recorded the largest year-over-year enrollment increase this past fall. Its count of full- and part-time students rose 2.5 percent while the Maine Community College System’s dropped 1.8 percent.
The overall economic environment could explain the recent switch, said Wendy Lindsay, a researcher with the New England Board of Higher Education, which assembled the data on enrollment changes at New England’s public universities and community colleges.
“The economy’s better, so fewer people enroll in community colleges,” she said.
The drop in enrollment at Maine’s community colleges — which offer associate’s degrees and professional certificates — has corresponded with a steep drop in the state’s unemployment rate, said Helen Pelletier, a vice president and spokeswoman for the Maine Community College System.
“When unemployment is high, people turn to us to get the skills they need to gain a foothold in the economy,” she said. “In 2011, when the unemployment rate in Maine hovered around 8 percent, our enrollment peaked. Since then, as the economy has recovered and unemployment has dropped to its current 3.5 percent, enrollment has declined from that peak.”
Between 2002 and 2011, the number of community college students in Maine grew almost 77 percent, to nearly 18,000. Since then, the student count has fallen nearly 7 percent, to 16,700, according to figures compiled by the community college system. Still, that figure is 64 percent higher than enrollment in 2002, when the Maine Community College System started to take shape as it exists today. Trends on individual campuses have varied over time.
In addition to the official student count, Pelletier said, the community colleges provided training to 3,500 workers and 100 businesses last year. This year, the system expects that number to be higher.
The system is also focusing on retaining more of its enrolled students. It was awarded a Kresge Foundation grant in 2016 to join Achieving the Dream, a national nonprofit focused on improving community colleges’ student outcomes.