University of Maine junior Cameron Lawrence of Bucksport, center, gives a tour of the campus to a group of students from Portland High School in July. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Maine college students are continuing to opt into the state’s free community college program instead of enrolling in a four-year university, newly released data show.

The Maine Community College System saw a 16% increase in enrollment this year compared to last. Meanwhile, undergraduate enrollment in the University of Maine System dropped by 2.4%, continuing a decadelong decline in attendance.

But looking at the new four year-average, enrollment in Maine’s seven community colleges rose by 12.2% between 2019 and this year, almost the same amount that enrollment declined in the university system.

This year’s official enrollment numbers, collected by the colleges on Oct. 15 for the U.S. Census Bureau, show the continuation of a long-term state and national trend of declining enrollment in higher education – especially public higher education – and the effects of Maine’s free community college program.

From 2013 to 2021, the state’s community college system enrollment was on a downward trend. In 2013, it enrolled 17,580 people; that dropped to 15,004 in 2021.

In 2022, the first year of free community college, enrollment jumped to 16,792. This year, 19,477 students are enrolled.


College enrollment has been plummeting for over a decade nationwide because of both declining populations of young people and growing apathy about the value of a college degree. That trend is particularly acute in Maine, the oldest state in the nation.

Fewer in that already smaller population of young people are interested higher education than previous generations.

Today 42% of Americans ages 18 to 34 say they have a lot of confidence in higher education, according to a poll by Gallup, a global analytics firm. That’s down from 51% in 2018, and 60% in 2015.

Nationally, the number of students choosing to go to college directly after high school has declined by seven percentage points, from 69% to 62%, between 2018 and 2021, the latest year data is available from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The percentage of immediate enrollment in four-year institutions dropped from 44% to 43% over that same time period. For two-year colleges, immediate enrollment declined from 26% to 19%.

Students walk down a hallway Sept. 19 in Jalbert Hall at Central Maine Community College in Auburn. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Mirroring the national pattern, the University of Maine System has been watching its enrollment fall for years. Since 2019, the system has seen the numbers at its seven campuses drop by an average of 12.3%.


The Fort Kent, Farmington and Portland campuses have suffered the most precipitous drops, all with at least a 20% decline over the past five years. UMaine Orono, the system’s flagship campus, has seen a smaller, 10% drop over five years. The system’s Presque Isle campus is the only one for which enrollment has increased. The small school has seen a 63% jump in new students – from 903 to 1,474 – over the past five years.

While public four- and two- year colleges around the country and the University System in Maine have seen enrollment drop, the number of students at selective private colleges around the country has stayed strong. The same is true in Maine. Enrollment at Bates College in Lewiston, Bowdoin College in Brunswick and Colby College in Waterville has either remained steady or gone up.

And while community colleges in other states have collectively seen steep declines in enrollment in recent years, Maine has bucked that trend.

Declining enrollment at public institutions of higher education is concerning for many. Enrollment accounts for a significant portion of revenue for college and university systems. So as enrollment drops, so does the bottom line for school systems.

Educators and economists say public college and university systems that provide affordable and accessible educations are integral to keeping the economy afloat and creating and maintaining a democratic, equitable and informed society.

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