March 2, 2023

Commentary: Maine needs more high schoolers to pursue higher education – Portland Press Herald

A shortage of teachers leads to a shortage of college students. A shortage of college students leads to a shortage of teachers. We must break this dangerous cycle.

By Joseph W. McDonnell — Special to the Press Herald  |  March 2, 2023

The French philosopher Auguste Comte is credited as once declaring “demography is destiny.” It’s a statement that should sound alarm bells for Maine, with its growing older population and declining number of younger people. Maine high schools graduated 13,170 students in 2013, and are projected to graduate only 11,180 in 2027, a 15.1% decline.

To compound the problem, 45% of these high school graduates do not pursue any form of higher education. Maine will not only have fewer people to replace its current workforce but fewer with the education to contribute to a society that depends on people with more, not less, education.

These statistics explain why Maine’s higher educational institutions are experiencing a drop in enrollment. Maine’s seven public universities, seven community colleges and a handful of private institutions compete for a dwindling number of students.

The decline in higher education enrollment comes not just from demographics but also from the crisis in K-12 education that serves as the pipeline into higher education. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many teachers retired or left teaching, and up to 44% of new teachers leave the profession within five years. School districts are struggling to replace this loss with qualified replacements, which has left students unprepared and uninterested in continuing their education.

While the University of Maine at Farmington has suffered more from this trend than any other university in Maine, no university could better provide the solution to the shortage of K-12 teachers than Farmington.

Farmington has maintained its reputation over its 159-year history for producing high-quality teachers. Today, its graduates teach in school districts throughout the state and have inspired many of the university’s current students to pursue higher education.

Training high quality teachers is a labor-intensive process, best done in small face-to-face classes with close teacher-student interaction and long practicum hours in K-12 classrooms. Future teachers require a thorough grounding in English, math, history and science, subjects they will teach to K-12 students. And they need to study psychology and human relationships to motivate students to love learning and develop the intellectual and social habits to become productive members of society.

Today, only one-third of Farmington’s students are preparing to be teachers just when the state needs more teachers with a high-quality education and hands-on training to equip them to succeed in an increasingly challenging profession. The other two-thirds of Farmington’s students value the university’s style of education as preparation for careers in science, business, law and human service.

After two years of COVID-related disruption, high school graduates could use a high-engagement type of education. Employers value the skills Farmington instills in its students – creativity, communication, problem solving, critical thinking and social interaction.

Farmington has paid the price for the demographic decline. Its enrollment has dropped 40% over the last 10 years, which put the university’s budget in deficit. Last year, six faculty members took a retirement incentive, and eight others were laid off. To address its fiscal challenges, Farmington is expanding into new markets to win back enrollment; launching more graduate programs; launching online programs for adults completing their degrees, and making possible a smooth transition for community college graduates to a Farmington education.

In pursuing new markets, Farmington will remain true to its fundamental belief that education is a social experience and that students learn to become productive citizens and professionals through engagement with caring teachers and fellow students.

Demography does not have to dictate Maine’s destiny, but it will become its destiny if the state does not get more of its high school graduates to pursue additional education. And that will not happen until the state addresses the crisis in K-12 education, starting with quality programs for new teachers. Farmington has the capacity to train the state’s provisional teachers and more prospective teachers. Directing funds at such an effort would be a win-win solution for students and for Maine’s future.

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