In the state of Maine people often hear about declines in university enrollment. But one Maine university, the University of Maine at Fort Kent (UMFK), is bucking the trend. University officials today announced that fall enrollments have reached an historic high – 1,342 students, surpassing a university high water mark of 1,339 students set in 2006. This reflects a Fall semester enrollment growth of 11 percent above the previous year, marking a 25 percent growth in enrollment since Fall 2010. UMFK now ranks fifth among the seven branches of Maine's public universities in size.
When asked “what is this university doing that is different?” in an interview on September 15, UMFK President Wilson Hess said, “The answer is boring, but it's really not complex.” According to Hess, there are five keys to UMFK's success in a broader national climate of declining enrollments.
The first key is to devote resources to sustain the enrollment base. As the number of high school graduates decline statewide, UMFK has worked harder to maintain steady entering classes – including a focus on recruiting transfer students throughout Maine. It also means “being transfer friendly and offering online programs for adults and others who are place-bound by family responsibilities, work, health or simple remoteness.”
The second key is to retain the enrollment base. Hess said, “Many people think it's just about recruitment, but it's not. We constantly ask how we can make the students that come here be more successful” asked Hess. At the thriving campus in Fort Kent, this means providing active concentrated support for all new students whether they are arriving newly from Maine high schools, community colleges, or students returning after a long absence from academics.
UMFK also offers, “block tuition” which allows students to take between 12 and 18 credits for the tuition amount. The result: students take more credits, graduate sooner, and have less debt. Says Dean of Enrollment Services Ellia Zebedy-Sablan, “The cost of borrowing is a key factor of student persistence to graduation.”
A third key to growth has been to expand the student base - a subtle shift of attention from recruitment to program development. One of UMFK's focuses is on Maine families who are worried about the high cost of college. It has created RuralU, a pioneering partnership with 46 Maine high schools which provides high school students throughout Maine's rural communities access to regular university courses at their own high schools through both face-to-face instructions and online. According to Dean for Community Education Scott Voisine, “Support from the state's Maine Aspirations program means that this opportunity costs families about 1/6 what they would normally pay for college courses, while allowing the high school student to also use the university courses towards their high school diploma.”
A fourth component is to develop centers of excellence. “With signature programs you can, dare I say, dominate in a market,” said Hess. Since 2012, UMFK's nursing program has come to enroll and graduate more students than any other branch of the University of Maine system – including Orono and USM. Says Hess, “The licensure rates of UMFK BSN nursing graduates are second to none, making this program a true statewide center of excellence in a vitally needed career field.”
The final key, according to the UMFK leader, is looking for niche opportunities in the larger Maine, national, and international populations. New associate degree programs aimed at Maine workforce opportunities in Allied Health and Conservation Law Enforcement have experienced rapid initial growth. In response to a national mandate for nurses to gain their bachelor's degrees by the year 2020 the university created an online-based RN-to-BSN pathway and a campus-based three-semester accelerated nursing program. UMFK also offers bachelor degree completion programs in concert with Pacific-based students in Micronesia and American Samoa.
UMFK also has gained a reputation for a nationally recognized small college sports program – a perennial power in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA). “With four national championships in soccer in the past four years, UMFK recruits athletes from California, Montreal, and worldwide,” says Athletic Director William Ashby.
Hess said, “The real secret ingredient to growth is sustained effort. You never push too hard, but you never stop pushing.”