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October 2, 2017
Focus: Northern Maine

Northern Maine's colleges finding new ways to strengthen workforce

Photo / Courtesy UMPI
Photo / Courtesy UMPI
Raymond J. Rice, president of University of Maine Presque Isle, says by 2022 Aroostook County will need to fill more than 10,000 new jobs.
Photo / Courtesy UMPI
Carolyn Dorsey, director of the CBE program

College for $2,000 a semester?

The University of Maine at Presque Isle's Competency Based Education business administration bachelor of arts degree program is less than a month old, but it has already exceeded what school officials expected when they created it.

Here are some numbers:

Number of applicants for the program: 500-plus

Number enrolled: 100

Percentage of women enrolled: 65%

Average age of enrollees: 40.6

Enrollees are from: 15 Maine counties (none from Lincoln; 30–35 from Aroostook); 7 states, Canada.

Cost: $2,000 flat semester rate (no extra costs for books or incidentals)

Amount of semesters expected to finish: Five or less

Program requirements: 25 years old, five years in workforce, 30 college credits (or transferable work experience)

University of Maine System Chancellor James Page has said that, if the state's economy is going to improve, Maine has to make it easier — and cheaper — for residents to earn a college degree.

A year later, the University of Maine at Presque Isle has found a solution that's working beyond anyone's expectation.

"There's a pressing need for a workforce with postsecondary degrees going into the next 10 years," says Raymond J. Rice, president of UMPI. In Aroostook County, "We've lost 3,000 people in our workforce the last few years, and continue to lose more, but we will need qualified individuals to fill well over 10,000 new jobs requiring such qualifications by 2022."

Estimates are in the next 10 years, 60% of jobs will require a college degree. At the same time, adults with family commitments and jobs are finding college beyond what they can afford both monetarily and time-wise.

In Maine, about 17% of adults started college but left before earning a degree. But in Aroostook County, that number is 39%.

"The math tells the tale," says Rice. "If we don't help our workforce in Aroostook County and in Maine [get] prepared to take such jobs, we won't have an economy."

UMPI's solution is a Competency Based Education bachelor's degree in business administration that costs $2,000 a semester and most students can complete in five semesters or less. The program's goal is to get adult learners back into college, keep the cost under $10,000 and meet some of the pressing workforce needs of the region.

In the sparsely populated northern part of the state, it's the latest innovative step to strengthen educational offerings and the economy by UMPI, the University of Maine at Fort Kent, and Northern Maine Community College.

Carolyn Dorsey, director of the Competency Based Education program, says a major barrier for those who never completed college is finding the time to attend classes. Even night courses and traditional online courses are not always convenient. CBE allows students to work whenever they want, without a semester or class schedule structure.

When the CBE program launched in August, the university expected to enroll 25. It has 100 students, with 40 signed up to begin in January. "Within the first week or 10 days we had 500 people inquire," Dorsey says.

The program determines students' level of expertise when they enroll, so they aren't doing work that's redundant. The concept is similar to elementary and high school proficiency-based education, but with more autonomy. UMPI has hired two staff members who help students stay on track.

Strengthening the workforce

While employers can see that a traditional student has taken a specific course, it's not clear how much the student learned. The CBE program lists the competencies the student mastered.

UMPI worked with area employers to build the program and to find out what kind of courses employers would offer employee reimbursement for.

"We have to try to find ways to get more kinds of graduates in Aroostook County," Dorsey says. To do so, more people had to be involved in the discussion. "There are so many special skills needed that employers can't find in Aroostook County."

A business administration degree was the initial step to meet that need. The program will add a specialization in project management in January. There is also a need for accountants, so that will likely follow.

The fist enrollee of the program was an employee of MMG Insurance, one of the businesses UMPI worked with when designing the program.

Working together

The program initially focused on the needs of Aroostook County, but is open to anyone. The widespread appeal shows in the numbers. Students from The County make up 30% of the enrollment, but all the state's counties except Lincoln are represented. There are also students from seven other states and Canada.

The program is one of many ways the university system is adjusting to today's challenges in northern Maine.

In July, UMaine's Fort Kent campus announced it had a shortage of education teachers, so students working toward a bachelor of science in education degree now take some courses remotely from the Presque Isle campus.

Rice says he sees more such collaboration in the future.

"For too long, the two institutions functioned in a highly competitive manner," he says. "Clearly, to meet the workforce needs of Aroostook and Maine more broadly, both institutions need to focus on their own programs of excellence and to allocate resources accordingly."

UMPI also collaborates with Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle.

"Working together, we can steer students to the institution that provides such programming," Rice says. That will keep more students in the area, including after college, and draw more people from away as well. "This is a partnership that, frankly, for the good of the people of Aroostook County, will need to continue."

The schools are also finding new ways to work with business and industry.

NMCC is part of a group that launched the state's first mechanized logging operation program.

The 12-week certificate program, which began in September, is in collaboration with Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor and Washington County Community College.

Eight students were chosen out of a pool of applicants to learn the highly mechanized new machinery used in timber harvesting, an effort to fill a widening skills gap. The program is paid for by the university system and the logging industry. The equipment and training site were also donated by businesses.

"Both the industry and the state of Maine recognize that logging is a vital piece of the Maine economy," said Leah Buck, assistant dean of continuing education at NMCC in an August news release. "It is well worth this investment to create a well-trained workforce."

Meeting a need

Dorsey and Rice recently attended a conference of the Competency Based Education Network in Phoenix, a gathering of academics trying to find ways to implement what UMPI has already achieved.

"We're really excited to be at the forefront of a really innovative program," Dorsey says. People at the conference from larger schools in more populated areas that have tried similar programs in many cases are only getting a handful of enrollees.

"They want to know how a small school in northern Maine is getting 100 [to enroll]," she says.

She says the answer is simple: "We're meeting a need."

Rice agrees. The initial projection of 25 enrollees was based on what similar programs got when they started.

"But the depth of the need for such programming in Maine clearly resonated with the public," he says. "And I don't expect that to wane any time soon."

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