AUGUSTA (AP) – Rising enrollment at Maine’s community colleges is coming with a cost – declining enrollment at state university campuses.

Enrollment at the Maine Community College System has risen about 37 percent since 2002, the year the state’s seven technical colleges were transformed into community colleges.

At the same time, enrollment at the state’s seven universities has fallen by a little more than 1 percent.

Since 2002, the university campuses with the steepest enrollment declines are the University of Maine at Augusta (down 11 percent); the University of Southern Maine (8 percent); and the University of Maine at Farmington (5 percent).

The community colleges with the fastest growth are located in South Portland (up 79 percent), Auburn (up 41 percent), Fairfield (up 37 percent) and Wells (up 13 percent).

While the enrollment decline at USM has been in the spotlight because of the school’s fiscal woes, the effects on the seven-campus university system are felt beyond just that campus, said Margaret Weston, who chairs the University of Maine System’s board of trustees.

There are “regional pockets” in Maine where the popularity of the community colleges is shrinking enrollment in the university system, at least in the short term, Weston said.

Officials caution that it would be simplistic to suggest that the only reason some universities are shrinking is because community colleges are drawing away students.

For one thing, some state universities – including the flagship campus in Orono – are growing and two community colleges are shrinking.

At the same time, total enrollment in the community colleges has grown much faster than the overall drop within the University of Maine System.

That means community colleges aren’t simply diverting students from state universities, but are also attracting students who might not otherwise continue their education.

Still, education officials agree that the community colleges are luring students who previously might have chosen a state university over what was then a technical college.

That’s largely because the community colleges, unlike the former technical colleges, offer an associate’s degree in liberal studies, in addition to specialized career training.

John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System, said the degree is attractive to students who do not want to commit to a four-year program and those who would have steered clear of the old technical colleges.

Community colleges also have become the “low-cost entry point” for many college-bound students because tuition is about half that of the universities, Fitzsimmons said.

Although the student count in the university system has dropped as a whole, full-time enrollment has grown since 2002, while part-time enrollment has dropped, officials said.

The key now is to help both systems grow by working together to raise awareness of the value of a college education, Weston said.

If the state can boost the percentage of high school graduates who earn university degrees and get more community college graduates to seek four-year degrees, “we can stabilize, if not increase, enrollments,” said Joseph Wood, interim president at USM.

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