Commentary: Maine needs more high schoolers to pursue higher education

French philosopher Auguste Comte is credited with once declaring that “demography is destiny”. It’s a statement that should sound alarmist in Maine, with its growing elderly population and declining numbers of younger people. Maine high schools graduated 13,170 students in 2013 and are projected to graduate just 11,180 in 2027, down 15.1%.

To make matters worse, 45% of these college graduates are not pursuing any college education. Not only will Maine have fewer people to replace its current workforce, it will also have fewer educated people to contribute to a society that depends on the more educated, not the less educated.

These statistics explain why Maine’s higher education institutions are seeing a decline in enrollment. Maine’s seven public universities, seven community colleges, and a handful of private institutions compete for a dwindling student population.

The decline in college enrollments is not only due to demographics, but also to the crisis in K-12 education, which is serving as a pipeline into higher education. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many teachers have retired or stopped teaching, and up to 44% of new teachers leave the profession within five years. School districts are struggling to replace this loss with qualified replacements, which has left students unprepared and disinterested in continuing their education.

While the University of Maine at Farmington has suffered from this trend more than any other Maine university, no university could better provide the solution to the shortage of K-12 teachers than Farmington.

Throughout its 136-year history, Farmington has maintained its reputation for producing highly qualified teachers. Today, its graduates teach in school districts across the state and have inspired many of the university’s current students to pursue higher education.

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Training high-quality teachers is a labor-intensive process that is best accomplished in small face-to-face classes with close teacher-student interaction and long hours of practicum in K-12 classrooms. Prospective teachers need a thorough knowledge of English, math, history, and science, subjects they will teach to K-12 students. And they must study psychology and human relations to motivate students to love learning and develop the intellectual and social habits to become productive members of society.

Today, only a third of Farmington’s students are preparing to become teachers, just as the state needs more teachers with a quality education and practical training to equip them for success in an increasingly challenging career. The other two-thirds of Farmington students value the university’s educational style as a preparation for careers in science, business, law and social work.

After two years of COVID-related disruption, high school seniors could use some type of high-engagement education. Employers value the skills Farmington teaches his students – creativity, communication, problem solving, critical thinking and social interaction.

Farmington has paid the price for population decline. Enrollment has fallen by 40% over the past 10 years, pushing the university’s budget into a deficit. Last year, six faculty members took up an old-age bonus and eight others were fired. To meet its tax challenges, Farmington is expanding into new markets to win back enrollments; introduction of further graduate programs; Introducing online programs for graduating adults and facilitating a smooth transition for community college graduates to a Farmington education.

As Farmington expands into new markets, it will remain true to its fundamental belief that education is a social experience and that students learn to become productive citizens and professionals through collaboration with caring teachers and peers.

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Demographics don’t have to dictate Maine’s fate, but it will be if the state stops encouraging its high school grads to pursue additional education. And that won’t happen until the state addresses the crisis in K-12 education, beginning with quality programs for new teachers. Farmington has the capacity to train the state’s temporary teachers and other prospective teachers. Providing funding for such an effort would be a win-win for the students and for the future of Maine.

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