This sign marks the entrance to Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

Maine’s community colleges saw an 8 percent decline in enrollment this fall, while the number of students attending the state’s public universities stayed roughly the same.

The pandemic has caused enrollment at most higher education institutions across the country to decline, but Maine’s community college enrollment has dropped slightly less than the nationwide average.

Last year, the Maine Community College System saw the first systemwide increase in enrollment since 2014. But this fall, community colleges across the country have faced the steepest enrollment decline of all educational institutions, with a 9.4 percent drop compared with last year, according to data released last week by National Student Clearinghouse.

Enrollment in the Maine Community College System dropped from 17,327 last year to 15,948 this year, marking an 8 percent decline. The University of Maine System saw a less than one percent drop in enrollment, going from 29,974 students in the fall of 2019 to 29,683 students this fall.

“The effects of COVID-19 played a major role this year on college enrollment, and certain aspects of that impact hit the community college population harder than most,” said community college system spokesperson Noel Gallagher. “We believe our enrollment reflects one-time declines tied to the uncertainty of the first fall enrollment in the COVID-19 era.”

Nationally, undergraduate enrollment at four-year colleges and universities has dropped 4 percent due to the pandemic. The University of Maine system defied the national trend this fall largely due to an influx of out-of-state undergraduate students, who saw their enrollment rate increase by almost 8 percent.

Graduate student populations continue to grow nationwide, but that growth has slowed in the past month. National Student Clearinghouse data indicates a 2.5 percent increase in graduate students compared with last fall. However, the UMaine system far exceeded the national growth trend with a 9.6 percent growth in graduate student enrollment this year.

Overall, students not starting their post-secondary education this fall have accounted for the biggest drop in enrollment nationally, with 69 percent of all enrollment losses attributed to a decrease in the number of first-year students.

Maine’s community colleges and public universities have both seen that drop. Even at the state’s public universities, which have been largely impacted by national enrollment drops, there are 10.5 percent fewer first-year in-state undergraduates enrolled this year.

“COVID forced the delay of K-12 school openings across Maine this year; many of our students are older and have families,” Gallagher said. “Many people have put off their own education because they must care for young children who would normally be at school, but are home because of hybrid remote learning at their K-12 schools, compounded by a lack of childcare options.”

Campuses shutting down in spring also didn’t allow students to visit colleges and in-person recruitment at high schools was also not possible, she said.