Glenn Cummings

Maine and the rest of the country are grappling with long-simmering workforce challenges. An aging population, wages, work-life balance, and the cost of education are not new issues, but the COVID-19 pandemic has acted as an accelerant — making them impossible to ignore.

Employers need skilled workers to grow economic activity and drive innovation. Maine residents want meaningful work that pays a fair wage. One could frame these two perspectives as in conflict, but in my experience as president of the University of Southern Maine, they are very much in concert— not conflict― and the solution is making higher education attainable for more Mainers.

Across the nation, statistics show that the economic prosperity of a region increases with the number of residents who have attained a bachelor’s degree. Maine’s current rate is roughly 44%, with a goal set by MaineSpark to hit 60% attainment/workforce credentials by 2025. As we think about how we can achieve this goal, the potential in the Lewiston-Auburn region is palpable and holds the key to moving Maine forward. That is why we are excited to announce the formation of the “LA to BA” initiative housed at our Lewiston-Auburn campus.

This new initiative will place a renewed focus on the untapped potential of the Lewiston-Auburn region and strive to remove barriers to higher education. Already our Lewiston-Auburn campus is home to our leadership studies, social and behavioral studies, and occupational therapy programs with many other course options available virtually and on campus. Recently, we have added two new PhD programs and named Jeanne Paquette, USM’s vice president for corporate and workforce engagement, as our first Lewiston-Auburn administrator.

The Lewiston-Auburn Community Advisory Board has identified five areas of focus that will make the most impact in both overall degree attainment and economic impact, ranging from building a strong pipeline of health care workers to helping high school students earn free college credit.

Health care: Even before the first COVID-19 case was reported in Maine, we faced a significant shortage of nursing and care professionals in Androscoggin County. To address this need and give students an education they can immediately put into practice, USM will focus on academic programming to help the workforce increase degree attainment and prepare for careers in health care and social services.

Early college/dual enrollment: Early college and dual enrollment programs give high school students the opportunity to explore college-level coursework before they have put on a graduation cap and gown. Students who participate in these programs have less college debt, heightened college aspirations and higher levels of degree attainment. It is our intent to expand these programs and enroll more high school students in the Lewiston-Auburn area.

Business engagement: Our goal is to actively meet the needs of our business community. This entails identifying business workforce needs and creating programs that can ensure our students are career ready. In addition, we want to partner and collaborate with organizations that can provide experiential learning opportunities for our students and help adult learners with degree completion.

New Americans: The Lewiston-Auburn area is home to a vibrant community of New Mainers, and USM is committed to offering programs that assist with degree attainment and upskilling our newest residents. We recognize the unique challenges facing our immigrant community, from transfers of records and certifications to financial hardship and trauma. We will work closely with the New Mainer community to ensure that their voices are heard as we build the LA to BA roadmap.

Community college partnerships: Each year, USM welcomes roughly 250 students from Maine’s strong community college system to finish their four-year degree. We are committed to reducing financial barriers for these students and helping them transition into four-year degree programs. In addition, we are working to help students navigate academic pathways and leverage experiential learning opportunities to ensure career readiness.

To kick off the LA to BA initiative, we will undertake a community needs assessment to ensure that we are hearing a variety of viewpoints and addressing the most pressing needs in relation to bachelor’s degree attainment. This will include one-on-one interviews with community leaders, representatives from various backgrounds, and community members.

Your input is vital to this process, and we ask that if you are contacted to participate in the needs assessment, please join us to help create a program that will impact Maine for decades to come.

Glenn Cummings is president of the University of Southern Maine.


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