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In Year Two Of Pandemic, Out-Of-State Students Boosting Enrollment At Maine Universities

William Mary Maine Football
Michael C. York
/
AP
Maine fans in the student section in the first half of an NCAA college football game against William and Mary Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, in Orono, Maine.

Colleges and universities across the U.S. are still trying to regain their footing as the grip of the pandemic begins to ease.

Enrollment fell across the country this past year, as students balked at the prospect of online classes and financial uncertainty. But early signs suggest that more students could be returning to campus this fall— and in Maine, that's being largely driven by applicants from out of state.

High school senior Ava Martineau grew up in New York, but for years, she's thought about heading north for college.

Martineau has family who went to school in Maine, and she says she's always been drawn to smaller cities, like Portland. When the pandemic hit, Martineau says those feelings only got stronger. She saw Maine's relative safety and its lower case counts.

And her preferred school — the University of Southern Maine — kept its campus open, while many other colleges were forced to go remote last fall.

"Just having the past year be remote, I just feel like starting my freshman year of college, remotely, would just be so difficult. That's part of the reason I wanted to know if they planned on being in person," Martineau says.

When it came time to apply to colleges last fall, Martineau's heart was set. She only applied to one school: USM.

"I found out pretty quickly that I got in. So then I just gave up on applying, basically," she says.

Now, Martineau is set to join thousands of other out-of-state students who appear to be flocking to Maine colleges for the upcoming school year.

"I do believe more than any time in the last few decades that I can remember, people are talking about the attractiveness of Maine, and coming to live here, and coming to work here. And now coming to learn here," says Jared Cash is VP for enrollment management and marketing at USM.

He says as of May 1st — also known as National Decision Day — out-of-state enrollment for the fall is up nearly 40% compared to a year ago, and more than 25% over 2018.

As a whole, deposits from out-of-state students across the University of Maine System have increased by nearly a third as compared to the last two years. Private Schools including Husson University in Bangor and Thomas College in Waterville are seeing a boost, as well.

Cash and other administrators cite several reasons for heightened interest from out of state. For one, the university system added dozens of extra events and counseling sessions this year to boost applications.

And Cash says USM also tried to get financial aid information to students months earlier, to offer more financial certainty during such a volatile year.

Cash says the pandemic has also changed the perception of Maine. Just like out of state homebuyers who have targeted Maine, he says college students are more attracted to Maine's rural nature and its relative COVID-19 safety .

"I believe our position, especially in Southern Maine — where that is still considered a little more outdoorsy or pristine, than suburban areas of new England, but still not that far away, and certainly with access to a culturally rich city — has really helped us," Cash says.

Husson University Director of Admissions Melissa Rosenberg says that because her campus has stayed open, it's been able to offer in-person tours — a rare advantage during the pandemic.

The positive enrollment trends for this follow a 4% enrollment decline reported nationwide this spring.

David Hawkins, with the National Association for College Admission Counseling says early numbers from other schools in the Northeast and nationwide suggest they're beating expectations, too. He attributes the change to an improving economic picture, and more federal money going to financial aid.

"There does seem to be some optimism at the college level. That students are returning. That the yield numbers, the number of students who accepted offers of admission, are fairly healthy this year. Which is surprising a lot of institutions. And frankly, surprising us, as well," he says.

Hawkins notes that students could still choose not to attend in the months between now and the first day of classes, and that the picture might not be as rosy for schools in other parts of the country.

At Brunswick's Bowdoin College, administrators say they will welcome roughly the same number of out-of-state students this fall.

But Dean of Admissions Whitney Soule says she thinks the pandemic may have lasting effects on the geography of college admissions. She says because of limited campus visits, colleges invested more heavily in online videos and Q&A sessions, making information about colleges like Bowdoin more widely available.

"It meant everybody, everywhere, had the same access to really thoughtful information and presentation of the college. I don't think we ever thought about how divided it was before, it was sort of just the way we all worked. But by having to create content, and make it available to time zones all around the world, and be sure we had live content available in other time zones and the other side of the world, was really thoughtful and really important," Soule says.

Soule says she expects some of those virtual outreach tools may continue even after the pandemic, which she hopes will make colleges more accessible for harder-to-reach students — in Maine and across the country.