Maine’s high school graduation rate of 87% is comparable with the New England average of 88% (2019). College enrollment rates, however, reveal a widening gap. Maine’s college enrollment decreased from 62% in 2011 to 58% in 2018, while the New England rate has increased from 62% to 66% during that same timeframe. Similarly, while college persistence rates have remained stable in some New England states, Maine’s persistence rates have varied from year to year. Maine’s college completion rate is improving. In 2013, Maine’s 6 year completion rate was 50%, compared with 58% in New England (Judd, 2020). For 2019 those numbers increased to 62% for Maine and 65% for New England.
Since receiving direct funding from the State, in addition to the tuition reimbursement that was already in place, the Early College (EC) program at the University of Maine System (UMS) has focused on providing equitable access to high quality programs, raising college aspirations, and ensuring affordability to reduce college debt. EC program growth has emphasized career exploration and Maine’s workforce needs, which aligns with the State’s 10-year economic plan. System and university leaders committed to student-centered, system-wide collaboration and alignment. The first steps involved collectively and systemically eliminating barriers. Barriers to access, particularly in rural areas, include strict admissions requirements, course fees, and transportation to a college campus (Roach, Gamez Vargas, & David, 2015).
Three key changes removed barriers. First, university leaders agreed to an open-access policy for courses without prerequisites that relies on collaboration with, and approval from, the student’s high school counselor. Then, UMS launched ExplorEC, a single, uniform online application that provides students with access to courses at all institutions regardless of their geographic location. Finally, starting in the fall 2020, six campuses eliminated universal fees (the University of Maine at Augusta already had a fee free policy in place). This decision was largely based on the premise that campuses could forego income from fees because of the State funding received. With the exception of course-specific fees and books, Maine’s public high school students have tuition and fee-free access to EC courses statewide.