Enrollment across the University of Maine System is up this fall, and officials say it's driven by a new financial aid program and a boost in high schoolers taking college classes.
According to the latest report from the university system, enrollment grew by more than 2 percent statewide. That includes about 500 more in-state students, which the university system has struggled to attract in recent years.
Officials say part of that increase is due to a new program, unveiled at five of the system's more rural campuses last fall, that ensures tuition and fees are free to lower-income students eligible for Pell Grants by covering any out-of-pocket costs. About 280 students are covered by the program this fall.
Jonathan Henry is the vice president for enrollment management and marketing at the University of Maine at Augusta, which saw more students this fall after years of decline. Henry says the promise of free tuition has helped students see college as affordable.
"When you start to say, well, this is free, if you have need, then we can talk," Henry says. "So I think that dialogue was a hugely important catalyst last October, when we started this program."
Enrollment among "traditional" college students -- 18 to 24 year old's -- has barely budged over the past five years. Yet the university system is seeing its biggest growth in high schoolers. Almost 2,800 Maine high school students are taking early college classes through the university system this fall -- nearly 30 percent more than last year.
University of Maine at Presque Isle President Raymond Rice says that's important to prepare students for college.
"You have to think about the work you do preparing them and getting them into the collegiate experience while they're in high school," Rice says. "And then what you offer them, in terms of additional certification and degrees, after the four-year-degree."
Despite the enrollment growth, Maine students are still struggling to complete college. Less than 50 percent of students at Maine's public universities graduate within 6 years - a number significantly below New England as a whole.