17 September 2022
The number of students going to college in the U.S. has dropped by over one million since the spring of 2020. At that time, COVID-19 restrictions began going into effect everywhere in the U.S.
In addition, a number of U.S. states are finding they have fewer college-age young people than in the past. Maine, a state in the northeastern U.S., next to Canada, is one of those states.
A decreasing number of young people and the effects of COVID-19 measures make it difficult for large state universities to keep up their student numbers.
But, while universities in some states are having trouble bringing in new students, the University of Maine, in the city of Orono, is not.
This is the case although Maine is far away from most other states and has 10 percent fewer state high school graduates than 10 years ago.
During a time when fewer Americans are going to college, the University of Maine has been able to increase its number of undergraduate students by five percent. Why?
A recent story in the publication Hechinger Report said the University of Maine is ahead of other states in recruiting and retention measures.
The state is reducing the university's cost of attendance for students who come from other states and Canada. Because of scholarships and other financial aid, many students can go to Maine for the same price as a large university in their own state.
For example, the University of Maine is advertising in nearby Massachusetts. The ads say: "Go to the University of Maine for the in-state cost of UMass." UMass stands for the University of Massachusetts.
The university has about 12,000 students. While that seems like a lot, it is not nearly as many as big schools like Ohio State University, which has about 60,000. As a result, the school is trying to make a strong connection with both current and prospective students.
University leaders say they are trying to get to know all students who visit — even those who decide to go elsewhere.
Chris Richards is vice president of enrollment management. He said the school needs help from everyone to recruit the next class of students, not just the people who work in the admissions office. That was the old way.
"That model," he said, "isn't going to work anymore."
One part of the new way is for university professors and researchers to make presentations about their work at nearby high schools. Another is to make visitors feel welcome.
Richards described helping someone who seemed new to the school grounds find their way. "People want that," Richards said.
Em Jeffrey is a new student from the nearby state of New Hampshire. She said she noticed the difference between visiting Maine and visiting other schools.
"I definitely felt more welcomed. None of it felt forced," she said.
Jerome Lucido studies college enrollment at the University of Southern California's school of education. He said the University of Maine is on the right path.
"I do think there are lessons to be learned from what's going on in Maine right now," he said.
Richards said his university recognized the problem about 10 years ago when the number of high school students in Maine started to fall. At one point, 80 percent of the university's students came from Maine. Now about 40 percent come from other states.
In addition, there are over 450 international students in a degree program at the University of Maine. Other international students are in the school's program for English learners.
Orlina Boteva is the director of international programs. She grew up in Bulgaria and came to study at the University of Maine. She completed postgraduate degrees there and has been working with international students since 2009.
She said international students who are interested in the University of Maine will have to pay a similar cost compared to students coming from other states in the U.S. But the university does offer scholarships from $5,000 up to $20,000. In addition, the university offers teaching assistant positions for graduate students.
Boteva said her department does not do anything different from other schools in the northeastern U.S. to bring in international students.
However, she said the university's goal of connecting with students extends to those from outside of the U.S. University officials travel to other countries to find students and meet their families. They even made some visits last year when other universities were not sending their representatives abroad. The university also tries to make sure international students feel cared for when they come to Maine.
"Our population is small enough that we get to know our students. They have a really excellent experience on campus...So that experience really translates into a very high rating of the student experience on campus as an international student."
As a former international student herself, Boteva said, she "deeply cares" about the experience students from other countries have while in Maine. She also wants students to know that it is possible to find out how to get a work visa and stay in the U.S. after finishing a study program.
Boteva said the school is also paying attention to students who come from countries with economic problems. The U.S. dollar is much stronger today than it was a year ago. That means it is more costly to go to an American school. Boteva said the school will work with students who are already there but may be having trouble paying.
In addition, the University of Maine just announced that it will change the cost of going to school for students who come from a country like Ukraine, which is affected by war. They will now pay the same amount as students who come from Maine. That represents a big savings.
"This is really the first time that we as an institution are looking at what is our mission, as an institution to support displaced students by war."
She said the school is thinking about how it can help students find a pathway to education if their countries become destabilized. This year, there are eight students from Ukraine attending the University of Maine.
There is no guarantee the current ideas will keep working in the future. But, Richards said he believes the university will keep working to solve the problem of decreasing student numbers. He said the leaders of the university recognize the problem.
"The good thing for us," he said, "is that our leadership hasn't existed in a vacuum of false reality."
I'm Dan Friedell.
Dan Friedell adapted this report for Learning English based on a story by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
Words in This Story
recruit –v. to find people qualified to join a group or organization
retention –n. the act of keeping someone in a job or at a school
scholarship –n. an amount of money that is given by a school, organization or individual to a student to pay for the student's studies
prospective –adj. possibly becoming something in the future
enrollment –n. the act of becoming a member or participant in something
postgraduate –adj. relating to school work done after receiving a college degree
mission –n. a task or job given to someone
destabilized –adj. to be affected in such a way that carrying on normally cannot be continued
exist in a vacuum –idiom to exist in a state unaffected by other influences; completely set apart and independent