Enrollment in the state’s two-year system hit an all-time high this fall, despite national declines and the state’s aging population. What’s their secret?
Central Maine Community College was struck this fall by a rare problem among colleges in the demographically challenged state: it had more students than it could fit on campus.
Enrollment at CMCC grew by 22 percent this fall, to 4,121. It was the largest increase in the college’s 60-year history and the first time the total student population exceeded 4,000.
“The numbers were looking really strong in the spring, and all these students seemed to be coming: they paid the deposit, they took steps to commit,” said CMCC president Betsy Libby. By early summer it dawned on Libby and the rest of the leadership team that they would be faced with a problem they’d never had before.
“We realized, ‘Oh, we’re going to have a housing wait list,'” she said. “‘We’d better prepare.'”
So CMCC leased out an entire hotel, the cozy 128-bed Center Street Value Inn, located about a five-minute drive from the college’s lakeside Auburn campus. Since it was reserved solely for CMCC students, the college even decorated it like a dorm, branding it Mustang Hall after the college’s mascot. Staff also set up amenities like a common kitchen and volleyball nets and hired a new resident assistant to live there with the students.
Mustang Hall is a by-product of a remarkable 16 percent enrollment surge across the Maine Community College System this fall, up to 19,477 students from 16,792 in the spring—which was itself the result of a 12 percent boost from fall 2022. Some campuses saw enormous growth, such as CMCC and the small but burgeoning Washington County Community College, which grew by 36 percent. Others had more modest growth. But enrollments declined at only one of the system’s seven campuses: Northern Maine Community College, which lost nine students in total.
Community college enrollments nationwide grew slightly in the spring, by about 0.5 percent over the previous year. But Maine’s enrollment surge isn’t just inching back toward pre-pandemic levels, which were on the decline; it’s the system’s largest-ever influx of students, producing its largest systemwide student body. The last time the numbers came close to this fall’s was 2011, during the higher education boom that followed the Great Recession, when enrollment topped out just shy of 18,000 students.
Even more surprising is that the increase is made up largely of traditional-age students, according to Maine Community College System president David Daigler. Maine is the oldest state in the country, and it is only getting older: the median age of residents is 45, and in 2022, less than 18 percent of its population was under 18, according to Census data.
So what’s the Maine community college system’s playbook? And could it work in other states with similar demographic challenges?
More Than ‘Just Free College’
The most direct cause of the enrollment boom, Daigler said, is the system’s free college program, launched during the pandemic and extended this summer to apply to the high school graduating classes of 2024 and 2025. After the first year, Daigler said word of mouth helped boost the program’s impact and visibility, and he hopes that will continue to compound.
Daigler said he was surprised to find that the students who took advantage of the state’s Free College Scholarship were not all low income and eligible for federal Pell Grants; many belonged to the socioeconomic strata just above—lower-middle-class residents who were interested in pursuing a degree but balked at the idea of going into debt or losing out on work opportunities in a hot job market. Those students may end up qualifying for Pell Grants under revised FAFSA rules that will go into effect this application cycle, but for now Daigler said they are largely overlooked and untapped by higher ed institutions.
While the free college program had a “profound effect,” Daigler said, it’s “just the tip of the iceberg” in explaining the surge in Maine community college enrollments.
“It was the beacon that really got us all this attention, but it’s not as simple as just free college,” he said. “‘Free’ is not a magic word.”
The system also focused on developing workforce pathway programs, from certificates to associate degrees, that would feed the state’s starving labor force—especially in areas like health services and engineering. System leaders removed requirements for what Daigler calls “gatekeeper courses” in math and biology that can sometimes turn students off from pursuing those fields at an early stage. And they trained faculty to manage more students who might be underprepared but who “have an enormous appetite to start learning.”
Concurrent enrollment among high school students also played a large role, as it has in many community college enrollment success stories since the pandemic. Libby said that more than one-third of the new students at CMCC this fall are dual-enrolled high schoolers, who she hopes will matriculate as full-time college students next year; in 2022, 19 percent of concurrently enrolled students converted, but Libby believes that number has plenty of room to grow. She’s aiming for about a 30 percent yield.
She added that CMCC and the other community colleges that benefited most from last year’s 12 percent enrollment boost invested heavily in student support services to prevent the gains from melting away. CMCC hired additional advisers, extended hours for the student center and expanded student activity offerings. They even invested in more space in the dining halls and more options for meals.
“The key is not to only focus on growth,” she said. “If you’re just replacing students you lose with new students, that’s not growth at all.”
Daigler and Libby agree that the biggest key to building enrollment is to tailor the education to the tight job market rather than treating college and work as competing forces.
“Job-training programs have been remarkably successful for us, and we try to get into high schools to make sure students know before even graduating the connection between a degree here and their job prospects,” Daigler said. “The market is hot, but instead of letting that detract from enrollment, we want to say, ‘Hey, this is another reason you should come.'”
Daigler said the system’s growth is “absolutely” replicable in other states struggling to overcome the coinciding challenges of a pandemic-driven enrollment hole, aging populations and declining public interest in higher education.
John Fink, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, agreed. He said Maine is an example of the outsize impact on enrollment a free college program can have when coupled with a robust pathway program—among both high school graduates and community college students looking to convert their two-year degrees into baccalaureates.
“The big takeaway from Maine, for me, is that it’s going to take not just a promise to students [of free college] but a pathway to get them there,” he said.
Can a Two-Year Tide Lift Four-Year Ships?
Some fear that Maine’s two-year colleges may be benefiting at the expense of the state’s four-year institutions, which continue to struggle with traditional enrollment. Illustrating the point, Southern Maine Community College—the system’s largest institution, which saw a 20 percent bump in enrollment this fall—is renting out 140 beds from the neighboring four-year University of Southern Maine, for instance.
But community college leaders in Maine don’t see themselves in competition with four-year institutions. If anything, Libby said, they’re hoping enrollment spikes at two-year colleges contain the seeds of a transfer surge to their four-year counterparts in the near future.
Maine’s four-year colleges may be hoping for the same. Libby said a USM transfer recruiter has been on the CMCC campus nearly every day this year, setting up shop in the student center and talking to students about how they can continue their education toward a bachelor’s degree.
“Our growth is coming from a totally different population: those students who otherwise wouldn’t be attending college at all,” Libby said. “I still very much see us as a feeder school.”
Fink said he doesn’t see the two systems in competition with each other, either. The “massive dual-enrollment on-ramp” set up for two-year institutions could also persuade more high school students to attend four-year colleges, he said. And the system’s missionary approach to recruitment—convincing high schoolers of the value in pursuing some kind of postsecondary degree—may have wider-reaching benefits than directing high school graduates down specific degree paths.
“The big concern in Maine and the Midwest and across the country, really, is with changing demographics,” Fink said. “I think the project Maine’s community colleges are really working on is changing the culture.”