Lewiston-Auburn: The higher education hub

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The push to make college a local option has given our students greater opportunities, but there’s more to do.

Back in “the day” when I was in high school, Lewiston-Auburn’s students were forced to leave the area if they wanted to go on to college. Bates College was the only accredited institution in the community offering a degree. But in those days, Bates was seen as virtually unattainable for us locals.

In 1964, Androscoggin State Vocational Institute opened in an empty automobile dealership building offering training in the trades. Progress, but no degree opportunity. So we continued to leave the area.

Finally, in 1981, then-mayor of Lewiston Paul Dionne had a brainstorm: Why not establish a public university in Lewiston?

Gov. Joe Brennan agreed and started the campaign to put an eighth campus of the University of Maine in Lewiston. Great idea. A wonderful opportunity for L-A.

Over the next couple of years, after a bit of a rocky start followed by studies and analysis, there seemed to be exceptional support for the plan. After all, L-A is the second-largest metropolitan area in Maine. And it appeared it was ready with financial support.

Ah, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. There was opposition in our legislative delegation in Augusta; there was opposition in the University of Maine system; and our voters narrowly defeated a bond issue to finance the project. That was in 1984.

To L-A’s credit, with the continuing support of the governor, advocates of the project persevered and, finally, on Sept. 6, 1988, the Lewiston-Auburn College (as a part of the University of Southern Maine) opened for its first semester.

That was the first step toward becoming the education hub that we are today!

Think about it. Today we have four degree-granting colleges in L-A to be proud of: USM/Lewiston-Auburn College, Central Maine Community College, Andover College and Bates College. In addition, we can also boast that our Central Maine Medical Center has an excellent school of nursing.

Lewiston-Auburn College opened its doors in 1988 with three full-time faculty members and fewer than 50 students and offered only one degree program. Less than 20 years later, USM/LAC has 26 full-time faculty members and 50 part-time instructors serving 1,350 students.

In 1964, Androscoggin State Vocational Institute enrolled 48 students in four programs served by seven instructors. A year after its creation, it became Central Maine Vocational Technical Institute, which was given the ability to grant associate degrees in January, 1979. In 1989, CMVTI became Central Maine Technical College, and in 2003 became Central Maine Community College, offering transfer degrees (the first two years of a four-year degree) in the arts and sciences as well as career and technical programs. Today CMCC has over 2,100 students participating in 29 programs. Each year at least 20 percent of CMCC graduates in both career and technical programs take advantage of their transfer degree and continue their education toward a bachelor’s degree.

Andover College, seeing an opportunity to serve in a progressively growing area, opened its second campus in Lewiston about a year ago. Their student enrollment has grown so rapidly that Andover is expanding already.

So, as you can see, L-A is indeed an educational hub in our state. It has become a hub because of demand, and demand is increasing.

Our economic shift to technology and service from a manufacturing economy has created a necessity for a higher level of knowledge and skills. But that’s not the only reason for the demand.

As many students as we have attending college in our community, we’ve just begun to scratch the surface of where we need to be.

According to the 2000 Census, a mere 24 percent of people ages 25-64 in Androscoggin County have either an associate, bachelor’s, or advanced degree, compared with 37 percent of all Mainers and 45 percent in New England. Twenty percent of our population in Androscoggin County does not even have a high school diploma. Less education equals less income, etc. If our residents are to thrive in a knowledge-based economy, more residents must have higher education degrees.

Our four colleges – Bates College, USM/Lewiston-Auburn College, Andover College and Central Maine Community College, along with members of our business, government, education and nonprofit communities – have come together to create a regional arm of a statewide effort to increase the number of Maine people who earn degrees. College for ME – Androscoggin has set a goal to double the number of residents in this county who hold a college degree by 2015. Its mission is: “Earn a living, make a life, help your community.” That’s what a college education makes possible.

I have no doubt that our colleges and College for ME – Androscoggin are up to the task. We have to keep in mind, though, that increase in demand will require increase in supply. Tuitions have gone up to keep up with supply costs. Appropriations must go up also. Making our state’s educational system a top priority at the State House will only make Maine a better place to live.

If L-A is to continue to progress, we must achieve the College for ME – Androscoggin goal. Because education equals knowledge equals self-confidence equals success. And we all deserve success!

Jan Barrett is innkeeper/owner of the Ware Street Inn in Lewiston and chairman-elect of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce.

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