Long, harsh winters are a fact of life in Maine, but the state’s public colleges have never seen anything like what’s coming. A demographic winter, a relentless drop in the number of high-school graduates, extends into the foreseeable future. Many states in the Midwest and Northeast are facing shortfalls, but Maine’s promises to be especially brutal.
Every statistic about the state is more worrying than the next, and together they spell looming trouble. Maine’s population of 1.3 million is the oldest in the nation, with a median age of 44.2; the national median is 37.7. It ranks 47th among states in fertility and immigrant population; just 3 percent of residents are foreign-born. Enrollment has already been faltering at most of the state’s four-year public universities for the past decade, and the number of high-school graduates in the state is projected to continue to fall, by about 14 percent through 2032.
Maine is the nation’s most rural state, with most of its population clustered in the southern half, as are most of its seven public four-year campuses, which were organized as a system in 1968. But even its population centers are sparse compared with nearby states. Portland, its largest city and home of the University of Southern Maine, has only about 66,000 residents. The system’s flagship campus, in Orono, a town near Bangor, enrolls about 11,000 students. That’s about a third the size of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Capping the state’s northern end is Aroostook County, an enormous rural expanse nearly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. The county is served by two institutions 60 miles apart, the Universities of Maine at Presque Isle and at Fort Kent. Aroostook has lost almost a quarter of its population over the last 30 years and now has fewer than 70,000 residents. Census data indicate those residents are trending older, not younger. As Raymond J. Rice, president of the Presque Isle campus, puts it, “we’re in the worst corner of the worst corner of the country for demographics” for traditional college students.
These factors make the Maine system the canary in the coal mine for the challenges that public colleges face in many states. But these same factors have also compelled the state system and its institutions to embark on a bold and, in some respects, inchoate strategy to adapt. As a result, Maine has become a de facto laboratory for the future of sustainable public higher education.
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