A Maine Education: Starter Schools
Maine's new community colleges have filled an unseen void in the state's educational system - and succeeded wildly as a result.
- By: Jeff Clark
Photo Credit: YCCC
Chris Banks describes himself as one of those high-school students who could have fallen through the cracks of the higher education system. No one in his immediate family had gone to college, much less earned a degree. He didn’t know what he wanted to do after graduating from Massabesic High School in Waterboro or where he wanted to go, or even much about the process involved in getting there. “College scared me,” the Limerick resident acknowledges.
Today Banks is attending Pfeiffer University in North Carolina, majoring in business and sports management, and he credits his two years at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland with giving him the academic boost and the personal confidence he needed. His timing was pretty good. Five years ago, Maine didn’t have any community colleges. Today hundreds of their graduates are continuing their educations at four-year institutions ranging from the University of Maine to Harvard.
In a state with a steadily declining school-age population and steadily rising college costs, Maine’s community colleges are a rare education success story. Created in 2003 out of the old technical college system, the schools have grown faster than even their strongest proponents expected, with enrollment rising from 7,500 students seeking two-year associate degrees in 2003 to 12,264 in fall 2008. Another 2,500 students are in non-degree programs, and some 9,000 additional students are taking non-credit and customized training programs, according to system spokeswoman Helen Pelletier. For the first time this past fall, a majority of students on some campuses were twenty-one and under, a sea change for a system once so dominated by older, nontraditional students that every campus had — and still has — on-site child-care facilities.
But the growth hasn’t been painless. All seven community college campuses are bursting at the seams, tuition has increased after years of holding the line, and system president John Fitzsimmons regularly has to counter arguments that his success is coming at the expense of lower enrollments in University of Maine System campuses. The state’s ongoing budget crisis means that Fitzsimmons for the first time is looking at capping enrollment and cutting programs and personnel despite rising demand.
“It grew so much faster than I thought it would,” Fitzsimmons admits. “I didn’t anticipate the number of high-school students that would come to us.”
The reasons for the growth are many, ranging from convenience to lower entrance requirements. But the bottom line to the schools’ attractiveness is, well, the bottom line. In the past five years the community colleges have become the affordable alternative to four-year universities. Tuition and fees for a full year at a community college average about $3,300, compared to $9,100 at the University of Maine in Orono. And community college students who graduate with an associate’s degree in liberal arts from the two-year AdvantageU program are automatically accepted as juniors at all UMaine campuses.
Nor has the system’s original mission, to train Mainers for new occupations, been ignored. Some 70 percent of its students are in technical training programs. In fact, Fitzsimmons points out, 40 percent of incoming liberal arts students end up transferring into an occupational course. Today 94 percent of graduates who do not go on to a four-year college find jobs right out of school, and 96 percent of those jobs are in Maine, Fitzsimmons says.
Maine’s vocational schools started after World War II to provide blue-collar job training for returning veterans. When Fitzsimmons took over as president of the system in 1990, the schools were still called vocational-technical schools and their major emphasis was on occupational programs such as construction and heavy equipment operation. The six campuses — a seventh, in Wells, opened in 1994 — served a mere 3,300 students.
“State law had always given us the authority to offer a liberal arts degree,” Fitzsimmons explains. What was lacking was an agreement with the University of Maine System (UMS) to accept the students after they earned the two-year associate’s degree. There was considerable skepticism over the quality of technical school courses versus their university counterparts, and Fitzsimmons’ efforts to, first, quell those doubts, and, second, get a signed contract were stymied further by the revolving door on the UMS chancellor’s office. “Every time I got close, a new chancellor would come in, and I’d have to start all over again,” he recalls.
Fitzsimmons finally succeeded when chancellor Terry McTaggert signed a partnership agreement in 1999. “We signed in October and started offering the liberal arts program the next January,” he says. But it was still an associate’s degree from a technical college, which limited its acceptance, both among prospective students and with other colleges. In 2003 Governor John Baldacci introduced the legislation to change the name to the Maine Community College System. “And then the magic happened,” Fitzsimmons says happily.
“The presence of the community colleges has absolutely changed the landscape of higher education for our students,” explains Jeanne Crocker, principal at South Portland High School. “We’ve gone from 55 percent of our students going on to post-secondary educations to 85 percent, in large measure because of the change to community colleges.”
Crocker says the school has actually seen a small drop in the number of students going on to four-year institutions. “In the big picture, a student can go to SMCC for two years, save an incredible amount of money, and then move on to the University of Maine for a baccalaureate degree,” she notes.
The community colleges do not have an open admissions policy, Fitzsimmons emphasizes. “We test everyone who applies,” he explains. “You are not going to get into the nursing program unless you’re academically strong and can handle chemistry, for example. Students who do poorly, we send them to their local adult education programs to bring their skills up.” (Fitzsimmons notes that as a general rule, Maine students “are okay in writing and miserable in math.”)
Barbara Woodlee, president of Kennebec Valley Community College (KVCC), started as an adult education teacher at the school back in 1976, when it was still a division of the Waterville school department. This year, for the first time, more than half of the students at KVCC are twenty-one or younger. “We’ve had to rethink everything from student services to technical support,” she says.
Community colleges routinely bring in high-school groups to tour their campuses and send recruiters to college fairs. And then there’s athletics. Chris Banks came to SMCC at the invitation of basketball coach Matt Richards. Banks had been a standout player at Massabesic High but hadn’t caught the eye of any college scouts.
“Coach [Richards] pulled me aside after a game and said he wanted to recruit me,” Banks recalls. “Until then, I wasn’t sure about college. Going into a big university out of a small high school was kind of intimidating anyway. I thought maybe I’d pick up a trade or something after high school.”
Richards took Banks under his wing and got him started in the liberal arts program “because that seemed a good place for me to see what was going on,” Banks says. “I got interested in business administration, and now I’m in the sports management program at Pfeiffer,” which recruited him to play basketball last fall after Banks led the SMCC team to the top five in its national division.
“We get about six hundred students a year from the community college system,” notes James Breece, the vice-chancellor for academic affairs for the University of Maine System. Breece says that’s about double the numbers he saw five years ago. Many make the move before they finish the community college’s two-year program. “Students may go to a community college to explore the college experience, to see what’s there for them, attend for a semester or a year, and then transfer to a UMaine campus.”
Breece says the transfer students’ success rate “is pretty dramatic; it’s wonderful to watch. We’ve had a lot of students who wouldn’t normally go on to college who have great experiences with us.”
Breece allows that some of the university system’s campuses “did see some initial impact in enrollment.” The effect was especially dramatic at campuses near existing community colleges. UMaine-Augusta saw its enrollment drop 10.8 percent between 2002 and 2007, while the University of Southern Maine lost 8.1 percent. At the same time Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield and Southern Maine Community College in South Portland were recording double-digit increases.
The university’s main campus in Orono has not experienced similar losses, according to admissions director Sharon Oliver. Orono has seen the largest incoming freshman classes of its history in the last three years, Oliver notes, and the campus recruits aggressively at the state’s community colleges.
As for Chris Banks, he’s looking forward to playing basketball for Pfeiffer University for the next two years. And he’s already investigating the master’s degree program.
- By: Jeff Clark