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UMaine Taps Casino Funds for Older Students' Scholarships

More than a third of students enrolled in the University of Maine System are 25 or older. They also make up 60 percent of all part-time students. Paying for tuition, books and other school-related expenses can be a huge challenge for these non-traditional students - many of whom also have full-time jobs and busy family lives. A new scholarship program aims to relieve some of the financial pressures these students face, and, at the same time, help the UMaine system protect a key source of its future enrollment. Jay Field reports.

Amanda Harriman is 34 years old - a single mother of two kids. She lives in Searsport, works 38 hours a week at an agency that helps kids with behavioral problems, and goes to school, part-time, at the University of Maine at Augusta.

"Oh my goodness, I've been in school for about seven years," she says. "When I graduated high school, I went straight to college and I didn't stay but only a year. I had a 10-year gap, had children, decided I ought to go back to school."

Harriman is studying for an associate's degree in nursing, and is also hoping to finish up her bachelor's in mental heath. But recently, she ran into a problem.

"So up until this past semester, the fall of last year, I've got financial aid that has covered pretty much everything. And I've exhausted my financial aid now. I think I have, like, 140-something credits," she says.

She has two semesters to go in each degree program. A friend in the nursing department has offered to pay for Harriman's remaining classes because she's so close to finishing. But Harriman still worries, with all the other expenses in her life, that she won't be able to afford all of her books and the gas she needs to drive back and forth from Searsport to Rockland for her nursing clinicals.

"I've almost just quit school several times simply because if I just get done with school I can work more hours. But I know that if I don't continue going to school, I'm never going to get a decent paying job, or a job that I know that might last longer than the one that I currently have," Harriman says.

It's a common conflict in the UMaine System, says Shari Fraser, dean of Enrollment Services at UMaine-Augusta. "The expense of a college education is a challenge," Fraser says. "Many of the existing scholarships are focused on the more traditional student."

But now, Fraser says the UMaine System is launching a program that it hopes will give students like Amanda Harriman more options.

By law, a portion of the revenue generated by Maine's casinos, $3 million a year, must go to college scholarships. So the UMaine System is taking $1 million and starting a new scholarship program for adult students returning to school after an absence of three years or more.

"The application just came out this past week," Fraser says. "I won't be surprised if they have some in their hands already. And I suspect we will see many come in within the next couple of weeks."

Fraser says the first deadline for applications is May 8. Students can also apply by August 1, or December 1 for additional rounds. Applicants must be seeking a first baccalaureate degree, be registered at least part time and have returned to school in the fall of 2013.

Students will be eligible for as much as $4,000 a year in aid over four years. System officials anticipate awarding around 250 scholarships a year.

"That adult population in Maine, especially with the impact of the demographics in Maine, is such an important population," says Rosa Redonnett, the system's chief Student Affairs officer.  

Redonnett says Maine's need for many more skilled workers has made degree completion a top priority. But it's not just about meeting the economic and human resource needs of employers across the state.

"The adult degree completion population had been one that we had identified as a part of our broader enrollment management planning," Redonnett says.

Enrollment at UMaine has been on the decline in recent years - driven, in large part, by a drop in the number of high school graduates pursuing degrees at the system's seven campuses. Administrators say the trend has contributed to the $36 million in debt the system faces, and has forced them to look at other ways to boost enrollment.

Getting more adults to come back and complete degrees is a key part of the strategy. Rosa Redonett says she hopes the scholarship program will convince as many as 1,000 former students to go back to college.