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Maine community colleges adapt to increased enrollment, but leaders question sustainability

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Maine community colleges adapt to increased enrollment, but leaders question sustainability

Nov 27, 2023 | 5:38 am ET
By Emma Davis
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Maine community colleges adapt to increased enrollment, but leaders question sustainability
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Tiffanie Bentley, interim president of Southern Maine Community College. (Emma Davis/Maine Morning Star)

More students are attending Maine’s community colleges than ever. This fall, 19,477 students enrolled, an increase of 16% from the year before, which had already seen sizable growth. 

Administrators in the Maine Community College System largely attribute this sharp increase to the free community college scholarship that began in 2022, although they also point to other institutional changes, such as expanding the capacity of its nursing program and easing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

Some community colleges saw more dramatic population changes than others. Central Maine Community College in Auburn had the highest percentage increase in its enrollment, 22%; whereas Northern Maine Community College was the only college to see a decrease in enrollment, by 1%. Still, all have made changes to adapt to their changing student populations, including hiring more staff, expanding housing and adding class sections.

Community college leaders are celebrating the benefits of having more students on campus — the general liveliness, a resurgence of student engagement, the growth of programs. However, administrators at every college also expressed concern about the long-term sustainability of supporting the increased demand without a permanent increase in funding.

Adapting to different student needs

Some of the students now attending community college are a characteristically different bunch, due to a host of factors. For one, their high school careers were marked by the pandemic. Maine’s free community college scholarship also appears to be bringing in students who hadn’t previously considered attending college. 

One repercussion of easier college access is that students can do less planning ahead of time, said Tiffanie Bentley, interim president of Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. At SMCC, Bentley has noticed a need for more direction once students are enrolled. 

Report highlights benefits of Maine’s free community college program

Similar challenges have been seen at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, said EMCC President Liz Russell. Russell has seen an increasing number of students seeking out help with career and other planning. 

“We have a fair number of free college students who are intending to transfer after they complete their education at Eastern Maine, yet they haven’t yet figured out what their ultimate goal is going to be,” Russell said. “So, I would say that there’s a little bit more navigating and advising along those lines.”

Several college leaders also linked this lack of preparation to disruptions in students’ K-12 schooling due to the pandemic.

Tyler Stoldt, dean of enrollment management at Washington County Community College in Calais, said that faculty have come to him with issues around general decorum in class. Jennifer Laney, associate dean of students at York County Community College in Wells, said students now need more support with social skills. 

CJ McKenna, dean of student affairs and enrollment at Kennebec Valley Community College (KVCC), also spoke about the anxiety and discomfort he has been seeing in students, which he attributes to missed social opportunities during the pandemic. 

Helping students strengthen these social skills is not necessarily a bad thing, McKenna clarified. “It’s helping us to develop relationships with them much quicker, which is obviously going to help with their persistence and then their retention and hopefully their graduation,” he said.

Maine’s community colleges used some of the free college scholarship funding to add staff or shore up positions that are dedicated to supporting student success.

During the 2022-2023 academic year, the first that the scholarship was available, the system dedicated $1 million to hire additional staff to specifically help free college students across the seven colleges. 

What they did with that money varied. Some schools used the one-time funds to create new positions, such as SMCC, which hired four advisors with its $377,000 allocation. Others, like Central Maine, partially funded two food service workers, a resident director, and a learning and advising representative. Washington County, which received the smallest grant of $29,000, partially funded a new advising position.

So far, the system has committed another $1 million to retain those positions for  the current academic year but ongoing funding remains undetermined. 

More students interested in campus housing 

Unlike community colleges in many other states, most of Maine’s community colleges offer some on-campus housing. And this year, most of the housing across the system is full.  

YCCC started offering housing in 2022. Since then, student interest has only grown. 

“We actually doubled the number of students that we were able to put in our lodging this past academic year from last,” Laney said, “and then we did have an additional waitlist as well.” 

WCCC, the smallest college in the system, has for years only had capacity for 125 beds, Stoldt said. Over the summer,the college converted a number of other rooms into housing options and now has capacity for up to 142 beds. 

NMCC is the only college that is not seeing an increase in housing interest, which President Timothy Crowley said is likely because the college’s location in Presque Isle has a declining population overall. 

The system’s larger campuses have historically seen more student interest in campus housing and have seen the greatest increases, as well. 

As a result, SMCC added distance requirements this year, so only students who live more than 45 minutes from campus are eligible to apply for campus housing. Still, Bentley said the waitlist for housing this year became so long it had to be turned off.  

CMCC, the largest of the seven community colleges, could historically guarantee that all students interested in campus housing could get it. Last year, the school rented additional rooms in a nearby hotel. This year CMCC rented out the entire hotel — now called Mustang Hall.  

Our housing numbers are the highest they’ve ever been right now,” Libby said. 

Libby attributes this to growing interest in the school’s athletic programs, which have been recruiting international students. The few affordable housing options in the state limit off-campus options for these students and locals, Libby said. 

Maine community colleges adapt to increased enrollment, but leaders question sustainability
Members of the adjunct union rally for a fair contract during negotiations. (Courtesy of Shane Leonard)

Full classes, greater load on full time and adjunct faculty

KVCC in Fairfield is the only community college that does not offer housing. Increased enrollment has had the most impact on the school’s academic offerings, McKenna said. 

“Because of our enrollment increase, we had to add the most class sections we’ve had in almost a decade,” McKenna said. 

The school has raised individual class capacities by two or three students but has also added more sections. This has required that full-time faculty take on more classes than usual while the school is also relying more than ever on adjunct faculty, McKenna said. 

Northern Maine Community College is the only college to have used its free college scholarship allotment on teaching faculty. NMCC hired an electrical professor and nursing professor to support increased demand, while also adding class sections in other subject areas, Crowley said. 

“We’re filling that demand with adjunct faculty,” Crowley said, noting that some full-time faculty are teaching more classes than usual. 

Across the community college system, members of the adjunct union, part of MSEA-SEIU 1989, have had to take on more students per class since the free college scholarship began, according to union president Andrea LaFlamme. 

An additional two or three students may not seem like a lot on its face, LaFlamme said, but leads to increased grading, management, advising and other responsibilities not always captured in official job titles. 

According to data provided by the Maine Community College System, adjunct faculty decreased from 2018 to 2022, from 739 to 560, respectively. At the same time, full-time faculty has increased, from 329 in 2018 to 356 in 2022. 

Overall, reliance on part-time faculty in higher education is not unique to Maine’s community colleges. Across the country, two-year community colleges report the most widespread use of part-time educators. There has been a recent uptick in full-time faculty nationwide, but adjuncts are consistently paid less than full-time staff, receive fewer or no benefits and have less job security.  

During spring of 2023, MSEA negotiated a new contract. After seven months of discussions, the union and management reached an agreement in July, which includes a 4.5% raise each year for the next two years, although LaFlamme described that rate as a compromise. 

Some colleges, such as WCCC, have largely adapted by shifting responsibilities within existing staff. Stoldt said there has been a particular need for more sections of classes that are required for degree-seeking students, such as math, English and first-year experience courses. 

Other colleges are seeing increased demand for in-person offerings, including YCCC and EMCC, a shift from the past few years coming out of the pandemic.

CMCC has not added teaching faculty but Libby said it is now hyper-focused on filling any vacancies, whereas in past years it often took their time to search for replacements.

“It isn’t an increase to the raw number,” Libby said of overall faculty positions, “but in the past, you would see that they weren’t all full.” 

Long-term solutions contingent on long-term funding

Representatives from across the community college system all said they want to retain the positions they’ve added and work toward more permanent solutions to manage increased enrollment. However, all noted that permanent changes depend on permanent funding increases.

“The curriculum is built on the idea that we’re going to continue to provide a high quality experience for our students,” said Crowley of NMCC. “That can’t be dependent upon resources that we’re not sure we’re going to have.”

Russell of EMCC said she wants to see the three positions her college added with the free college funding be made permanent. “It’s really dependent upon the budget,” Russell said. 

The same is true at SMCC. “Anything that we would do to add staff, full-time staff, would be dependent on whether or not the program becomes permanent,” Bentley said. “At the end of the day, the funding formula for colleges and universities in the state hasn’t changed.”

Earlier this year, Maine Community College System President David Daigler requested an additional $5 million to support student success. Daigler testified before the legislature, “We believe that additional appropriations are crucial so that our colleges can meet the increased emotional, academic, and financial needs of our students.”

In response, Sen. Matthea Daughtry (D-Brunswick) proposed a bill to provide the additional funding. While not explicitly linked to free college, the bill aims to boost student success by adding positions — such as navigators, tutors and disability coordinators — as well as finance new student technology and expand on-campus housing support.

The bill was carried over and Daigler told Maine Morning Star, “We will be pursuing that funding in the next session.”

The legislature also tasked the community college system with studying on-campus housing options for students last session. The system is scheduled to report its findings and any suggested legislation to the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs no later than Dec. 6.

On the federal level, there will soon be changes to who qualifies for financial aid. The new Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which begins in the 2024-25 academic year, will be shorter and expand federal Pell Grant eligibility to more people.

It remains to be seen how these overall changes in higher education will impact community college enrollment.

In the meantime, community college leaders in Maine are relishing in the interest they are seeing and are largely satisfied with the early success of Maine’s free college scholarship. But, uncertainty weighs against this comfort. 

“I think we’re going to see a good return on investment from all of this funding that is coming in,” Stoldt of WCCC said. “My only concern — and I think you would hear this from anybody that talks about this — is sustainability. Because these funding sources, at this point, have an end date.”