ELLSWORTH — Over the past 15 years, University of Maine at Machias (UMM) student enrollment has dropped 30 percent, from a high of 1,371 students in 2003 down to 964 at the start of the 2016 school year.
With enrollment steadily declining and the University of Maine System (UMS) digging into its coffers in order to keep the Downeast campus afloat, administrators announced last week a partnership between the flagship Orono campus and UMM.
The partnership will involve sharing academic resources and administrative duties, according to UMS Chancellor James Page, UMaine President Susan Hunter and UMM Interim President Stuart Swain.
“The trustees are not at all interested in closing the [UMM] campus,” Page said. “But the status quo is no good, either.”
The goal of the partnership is to grow enrollment in Machias and to make efficiencies wherever possible, he said.
Page said that the campus’s low enrollment numbers are due in part to fewer Washington County high school graduates.
Part of the effort to boost enrollment includes an opportunity for applicants who applied but were not admitted to UMaine. Those prospective students will be offered the chance to attend UMM for two years and then transfer to Orono.
“Of course, if they want to stay in Machias, we would welcome that as well,” Hunter said.
The University of Maine at Orono saw a 17-percent spike in applications for the 2016-2017 school year, with over 14,000 applications for just 2,150 slots. The majority of those applicants came from out of state. That is a large pool of students who could potentially take advantage of the UMM option.
Page said that the partnership is an opportunity to highlight UMM’s signature programs, such as marine biology.
On the administrative side, Swain and Hunter said they will look for ways to share duties where possible.
Last fall, a full-time financial aid officer resigned and UMM decided not to refill the position.
Instead, back office duties shifted over to UMaine, which has a much larger financial aid staff.
“UMM staff can focus on serving our students one-on-one, but some of that back office work can be done through the Orono office,” Swain said.
The presidents said they will look for similar ways to share administrative functions.
“Over the next few months, we will come up with more ways to collaborate with UMO,” said Swain. He and Hunter will report to Page in July with their ideas and findings.
Hunter said faculty and staff in Orono have been receptive to the partnership.
“This is the responsible thing for both institutions to do,” she said. “We have to take seriously our benefit to the entire state and we see it as a piece of what a land grant university does.”
University of Maine System (UMS) Chancellor James Page said that its trustees have no interest in closing the University of Maine at Machias (UMM), despite low enrollment. But Page and UMS trustees could not close an underperforming campus even if they wanted to — at least not without taking it up with the state Legislature. Due to a 2005 state law, seven University of Maine campuses must remain open. After the economic downturn of 2008, the university system has struggled as enrollment and state funding have dropped as tuition has remained the same. In 2014, there was a push by the University of Southern Maine (USM) Faculty Senate to close that school’s Gorham campus in order to help close a $16-million deficit. Trustees denied the faculty’s proposal, saying it was inconsistent with the law. According to Page, UMM is running on a $1-million deficit and shuttering the campus would save the system only $5 million to $6 million.