The University of Maine at Machias is a small liberal arts campus located in a remote, rural, county on the coast of Maine. The current crisis in higher education is more severe in Maine than in many other parts of the country, and the situation is particularly difficult in the part of the state surrounding UMM, where traditional resource-based jobs are disappearing and rates of post-secondary study must rise if the residents are to prosper. Committed as a campus to engagement with its larger community, UMaine Machias uses a broad array of active teaching and learning strategies to address the gaps in aspirations, planning, and college readiness that prevent many in the local population from pursuing post-secondary education. As a whole, Maine sees a very high percentage of its young people graduating from high school—86.5% in 2001—often leading both the nation and the northeast region (Maine Department of Education data cited in Plimpton, 2006, p.1), yet tracking the number of these graduates who enroll in post-secondary study immediately after high school produces a disappointing picture, with Maine's figure of 50% in 2002 lagging significantly behind the 60% that characterized the rest of New England (NCES IPEDS data cited in Plimpton, 2006, p.1). Similarly, recent U.S Census data shows that only 37% of working-age adults in the state hold college degrees, compared to 46% in the rest of New England (cited in Plimpton, 2006, p.1). Obviously, despite its notable accomplishments in K-12 education, Maine faces a significant crisis in its post-secondary programs; this is a crisis, however, that has rather different characteristics in each of the two distinct regions of Maine.
Barriers to Post-Secondary Education in Rural Downeast Maine
Anyone who spends a significant amount of time in the state of Maine will eventually hear talk of "the two Maines." In general, this phrase refers to a north/south split between the more populated, more urban, wealthier counties of southern Maine and the sparsely populated rural counties of the north and east that are primarily dependent on flagging, resource-based economies. Washington County, home of UMM, lies in the heart of Downeast Maine and is one of the most distressed counties in the state. Data reported in the Maine State Planning Offices' 2005 Report Card on Poverty reveals that Washington County had the highest poverty rate in the state, 19% compared to a rate of 10.6 % for the state as a whole; 2002 estimates predicted a very slight decrease for the county's rate to 17.6% (p. 25). 2002 per capita income at $22,469 was the lowest in the state (p. 30) and $6000 below the average for the state as a whole (p. 3). Similarly, Washington County consistently reports high unemployment rates: 8% in 2004 compared to a low of 2.8 % for the southern Cumberland County (p. 3). The educational data for the state reflects this dichotomy as well; in 2000, a meager 22.8 % of working-age adults in Washington Country had associates degrees or better compared to the high of 46.6 percent in, again, Cumberland County (Maine Department of Labor data cited in Plimpton, 2006, p. 33). Moreover, in 2001-2002 when the Maine-based Mitchell Institute undertook a study of Barriers to Post-Secondary Education in Maine, researchers found that "the experience in Southern Maine, where more residents are college graduates, appears to be significantly different than in other parts of the state" (p. 1). Young adults in Southern Maine are much more likely than students from other parts of the state to have a parent or other relative who has completed college, to have community support for college attendance, and to consistently express more optimistic attitudes about college and college finances. Young adults in other parts of the state, particularly Coastal and Downeast regions, often would be the first in their families to go to college. They are much more concerned about both the value and cost of college and report lower family and community support for post-secondary education. All of these are factors that can be significant barriers to students' pursuing study beyond high school (pp. 2-3).
UMaine Machias' Strategies for Reducing Barriers to Post-Secondary Education
Both the Mitchell Institute and the Maine's MELMAC Educational Foundation have extensively studied the problem of these barriers to post-secondary education, and over the years they have identified three major strategies to overcome them. The first is a concerted effort to raise aspirations among high school students, the second is connecting these aspirations to realistic planning for post-secondary education, and the third is increasing college readiness by enhancing the rigor of students' high school experience. UMaine Machias partners with its area schools in activities promoting all of these objectives. All of these partnerships are based on the premise, prevalent throughout the literature, that any positive exposure to college activities, even the proverbial campus visit, helps demystify secondary education and make it seem more accessible to students. The more substantive and extensive the interactions, the more students gain in enhanced aspirations, in understanding of the long-term planning process needed for college attendance, and in realistic assessment of the expectations colleges hold for their incoming students.
UMaine Machias' Early College ProgramUMM's most expansive partnership with local high schools is its Early College Program. Established two years ago, UMM's Early College Program makes regular college courses available to high school juniors and seniors recommended by their guidance counselors. While the program is open to any student, the majority of participants have come from five Washington County high schools that are members of the Downeast Community Learning Alliance (DECLA). In its first semester of operation, the UMM Early College Program enrolled 34 students; participation has subsequently risen substantially, with 79 students currently enrolled for the fall 2006 semester. The Early College Program does not bring just students to campus, however. Parents and siblings are invited to join EC students for the on-campus orientation. The president or vice-president always welcomes participants to campus, and special presentations by admissions and financial aid personnel help troubleshoot the college application process for parents. The University also goes into the high schools. The EC Coordinator regularly travels to area schools and administers placement exams to students or, if requested, to classes as a whole to help students become familiar with this aspect of the college-going experience. Placement scores can also be useful to guidance counselors who are trying to persuade students to take more rigorous college preparatory classes. The Coordinator often meets in their home schools with students who may be having difficulty in their classes and may require support services. Moreover, the minutiae of advising, course registration, progress-monitoring, dealing with absences?all of which are handled by the EC Coordinator?militate that the University and high school personnel are in frequent, often daily contact. Of necessity, any barriers that may have existed between the participating institutions have fallen as a true partnership has formed between the campus and the area high schools. The importance the University places on this partnership is clear from its decision, despite its own financial pressures, to reduce tuition for Early College students by 25% and to waive most fees. Guidance counselors have observed that the whole culture regarding college in their schools is changing. When 79 of approximately 320 juniors and seniors in DECLA schools are taking college classes, such far-reaching change is probably inevitable: students realize that not only college, but college success is available to anyone.
Service Learning: Bringing Local Area Schools to UMaine Machias
The Early College Program, given its rapid growth, may be UMM's most dramatic effort to increase access to secondary education for young adults of Downeast Maine, but it is only one of a number of ongoing projects, all of which are related to the campus' commitment to active learning and engagement with the broader community. The UMM faculty formalized this commitment several years ago when they voted to require that service-learning be infused across the curriculum, with each academic program mandated to build at least one service-learning experience into the coursework it requires of its students. Many programs were already more than meeting this requirement. In some of their classes, recreation management students were planning and hosting various events such as a Halloween-evening Haunted Forest activity held for area youngsters in the Machias high school. Chemistry students monitored water quality in area streams; marine biology students worked on salmon conservation projects; behavioral science students collaborated with area social services agencies to study county-wide problems; history students researched and rehabilitated a long-neglected African-American cemetery. For other programs, more significant changes accompanied this shift. English and Book Arts, for example, sought out donations that have allowed the establishment of an in-house press that will provide students with hands-on experience with all aspects of the production of fine, hand-made editions of works by local authors and artists. Increasingly, these active teaching and learning activities involve collaboration with area schools. Students taking Special Topics in Ornithology this spring, for example, hosted a campus visit of fifth through eighth-grade students from a local elementary school. Putting their classroom learning into practice, they led these younger students through dissections, comparative studies of skeletal structures, examinations of how birds have adapted for flight, and analysis of migration patterns. Some of these collaborations extend beyond the scope of a particular course. One ongoing campus/community partnership originated in a science professor's proposal to build a series of labyrinth gardens though projects tied to diverse course offerings. Two gardens are nearing completion and community involvement has been extensive with donations of supplies, benches, plantings, as well as financial support. High school students and faculty have also participated in work on both labyrinths, spending their service days on the UMM campus digging, planting, and otherwise helping to further this ongoing project. One of these collaborations even has a global reach as a UMM program links area high school students and faculty with their counterparts in the Middle East. UMaine Machias is a participant in Soliya, an international program in which students in the United States and in predominantly Muslim countries examine their respective histories, cultures, and perceptions of the other through facilitated, collaborative study using videoconferencing and other sophisticated online technologies (http://www.soliya.net). Last fall, to fulfill a Soliya course requirement, one of UMM's students, collaborating with a young woman from the American University in Beirut, developed an action proposal entitled Think! The goal of Think! was to help young people in each country gain a better understanding of United States and Middle East relations and of the two different cultures through a day-long workshop, followed up by possible virtual pen pal and video-tape exchanges. In April, UMM's Think! Coordinator gathered high school students and faculty from 3 area schools as well as faculty and students from the college for a workshop?complete with Lebanese food and traditional bellydancing?that examined historical, cultural, and media issues. Her colleague in Beirut organized a corresponding workshop in June.
Service Learning: Bringing UMaine Machias to Local Area Schools
All of the above activities brought area elementary and high school students to the campus to participate in projects generated by UMM's engaged students and faculty. Other activities bring the campus into the local schools. Some projects may be one-time events such as a performance by a theater class. Others are more truly collaborations and have more far-reaching implications for the students involved. One notable example arose out of the Early College Program. This past spring a section of UMM's introductory education course, EDU 112 School and Community, was offered live at a local high school and broadcast from there to other receiving sites. Students at this high school, approximately 40 miles from the campus, had been able to participate only minimally in Early College coursework because of transportation difficulties. Housing the course at the high school impacted not only the students actually taking the course on-site, but also created a college "buzz" in the school at large, with students often looking into the classroom to see what was going on with the "college course." Moreover, since a significant component of the course took enrolled students into classrooms at the associated elementary school where they observed classroom practices, assisted teachers, and tutored students, the impact of the course extended even beyond the walls of the high school. Response from all participants in this experiment was overwhelmingly positive and next year this section of EDU 112, having been invited by enthusiastic administrators, will travel to another high school with the expectation that students will have a similarly positive experience. Other faculty at UMM are proposing similarly expansive partnerships with the schools of Washington County. One idea currently being examined calls for the creation of a mobile science museum, staffed by UMM students, that would travel to area schools with, for example, items from the University's collection of marine mammal skeletons. UMM students would have an opportunity to reinforce their learning of course material by teaching it; local school students would have a hands-on learning opportunity; and area schools, in an era of dwindling resources, would have an opportunity to enhance their curricula with challenging yet fun mathematics and science activities. A second proposal involves partnering with teachers to provide access to equipment and training in molecular biology. The University would acquire several sets of portable equipment that would allow students to collect samples, extract the DNA, amplify a particular piece of DNA, and visualize it. University faculty would train high school science teachers to use this equipment in their own classrooms and then loan the equipment to schools on a circulating basis. This work could also be extended by bringing samples to UMM for DNA sequencing or other more sophisticated projects. Both this project and the mobile science museum/lab will only be realized if the faculty involved can find external funding, but each has the potential to bring more advanced work into the mathematics and science classes of local schools as well as giving UMM students another opportunity to put what they are their learning in their coursework at the service of the broader community.
Lessons Learned and Long-Term Considerations: The UMaine Machias Experience
As it has been developing these K-16 partnerships, UMM has both learned some lessons and discovered areas that need further examination. The first and most important of the lessons learned is that for undertakings like these to be successful, they must truly be collaborative enterprises. The University faculty and students cannot view themselves as enlightened benefactors bringing academic "riches" to poor, benighted local school districts. Each party must acknowledge what the other brings to the partnership and all participants must be mutually respectful. Any significant manifestations of town/gown rivalries can sabotage this process before it has fairly begun. With more specific reference to Early College, an early clear finding is that programs such as these can be enormously successful, even in areas with no strong tradition of college attendance. That very success, however, can generate problems when student demand exceeds available funding. Early College programs, even when discounted tuition is available, are expensive undertakings. Often financed at their start-up by grant funding, participating institutions may eventually face the unhappy dilemma of having to ration access and of developing restrictive criteria for spending the limited amount of money that they do have most effectively. Similarly, they must address the question of sustainability: what happens when grant funding disappears? These are matters high school and college administrators ultimately cannot address alone. If educators and state legislatures are truly serious about promoting seamless K-16 experiences, everyone must begin to consider the long-term financial implications of such a policy. Another issue facing Early College programs is clear identification of the target population and the development of appropriate programming. EC coursework can serve many purposes. For high-achieving students, it can supplement AP classes and bring additional challenges into the high school experience. For many students, taking college classes can fill a sometimes "empty" senior year with meaningful coursework that gives students a head start on achieving a college degree. For at-risk students, Early College courses can help demystify the college experience and make students aware that a college degree is accessible to them. Because these programs can serve so many different purposes, each one must be carefully designed to bring maximum benefit to the participating students. This is particularly true for programs targeting underachieving populations. For EC programming to have an impact on the college aspirations and success of these students, it is absolutely essential that the college experience be a positive one. Consequently, they cannot simply be thrown into ordinary college courses where their lower academic skills will very often precipitate failure. Placing these students into remedial courses, where they can experience the college setting and success in a "college" course while simultaneously building their skill levels could be one option. A second would be to follow something like the Upward Bound model and to nurture these students and their academic skills—perhaps with activities and classes both at the high school and on the college campus—until they are able to be successful in regular college coursework. Moreover, these programs must above all else be supportive of students even when they fail. They are asking students to take a risk and cannot punish them if results are lackluster (by, for example, making students pay for courses they do not pass). Such punitive measures will only diminish students' fragile self-esteem and add to the aura of negativity that already surrounds the idea of college for many of them.
Other Logistical Lessons Learned
UMM has also learned a number of important lessons as it expanded other partnerships with area schools. One of these is that K-16 outreach is a natural outgrowth of the campus' formal commitment to service to its broader community and to engaged practices in all of its educational programs. This commitment, in effect, reflects a change in campus culture brought about by the sustained hard work of many UMM faculty and staff and by consistent administrative support. In this context, the University's partnerships with area schools and other local civic organizations become a natural outgrowth of classroom activities and bring benefits both to UMM and to its community partners. While these and similar outreach activities may arise naturally from the culture of an engaged campus, only a Pollyanna would deny that they also bring with them significant practical complications, all of which require the investment of considerable time and resources. For Early College programs, conflicting class times, semester schedules, and even grading systems (when students are receiving dual credit) must all be resolved; basing college classes in high schools has its own set of logistical difficulties. Particularly in rural areas where distances between collaborating schools may be large and public transit all but non-existent, transportation and its attendant costs become a major issue for any kind of joint activity. Planning for courses becomes more complicated when the broader community becomes a partner in students' research and scholarship. Some projects, such as UMM's proposed mobile science museum/lab and traveling DNA kits, require resources far beyond the means of many campuses and will require that the faculty involved seek external funding (and be given the time and support that writing those grant proposals will require). More broadly, all participating schools must establish effective assessments that identify the least and most efficacious kinds of activities, with this information being shared both locally and in the larger, national conversation about best practices. Finally, some undertakings will require that the campus challenge itself, take a chance, foster, and have faith in the imagination and creativity of its faculty: campus/community labyrinth gardens as a vehicle for service-learning activities in courses? But the campus that is willing to experiment, to support its faculty, staff, and students as they make the broader community their classroom and share their learning experiences with area students of all ages is serving well not only its current enrollees. The campus is also serving those younger elementary, middle, and high school students in the broader community who, because of their participation in campus classes and activities, may have gained both a desire to pursue post-secondary education and a more realistic understanding of how best to prepare themselves for success in their college work and, ultimately, for more prosperous post-secondary careers.
Maine State Planning Office. (2005, April). 2005 report card on poverty. Retrieved July 17, 2006
Mitchell Institute. (2002, July). Barriers to post-secondary education in Maine: Making college the obvious and attainable next step for more Maine students (executive summary). Retrieved July 11, 2006
Plimpton, L. (2006, January). Indicators of higher education attainment in Maine: College as a Right and responsibility for all Maine people. Retrieved July 11, 2006.