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Early signs suggest college enrollment could rebound this fall

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University of Southern Maine senior Fantasia Perez wears a mask and poses for a picture.

University of Southern Maine senior Fantasia Perez works as a tour guide, leading interested students across the school’s campus in Gorham, Maine. Grace Laverriere

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On a sunny afternoon, University of Southern Maine senior Fantasia Perez led a small group of interested high schoolers on a tour of the college’s tree-lined campus. Classes ended in May, but Perez was busy showing off the school to prospective students; talking up favorite spots, from dorms and dining halls to the steep hill that’s used for sledding in the winter.

 “With that being said, I will warn you: There are trees,” Perez told the students. “So don’t sled into the trees!”

In recent years, nearly 90% of University of Southern Maine students have come from within the state. But over the past few months, early deposits from out-of-state students were up by nearly one-third across the state’s university system.

“This past semester, we’ve had people from Alabama, California,” Perez said. “I think I’ve sent letters to students all over the country, really.”

The college says it’s now on track to boast the largest freshman class in its history this fall.

University of Southern Maine senior Fantasia Perez leads a tour for interested students on the school’s campus in Gorham, Maine.

It’s a somewhat surprising trend — especially after a year in which college enrollment fell by nearly 4% nationwide. David Hawkins of the National Association for College Admission Counseling said expectations for this fall weren’t much better.

“The bar was set so low,” Hawkins said. “There was so much pessimism.”

But, he added, early deposit numbers nationwide this year suggest that enrollment may bounce back. 

“There does seem to be some optimism at the college level that students are returning,” he said. “The yield numbers — the number of students who accepted offers of admission — are fairly healthy this year, which is surprising a lot of institutions. And frankly, [it’s] surprising us, as well.”

In Maine, university officials ramped up outreach efforts last year to reach new students. University Chancellor Dannel Malloy said the state was also boosted by generally low COVID-19 numbers, which enabled universities to remain open last year while colleges in many other states stayed remote.

“That worked in our favor. And it told the story that Maine, in general, was doing a good job, and that we were ready to be responsive,” Malloy said.

Administrators note that the numbers aren’t final and could change before the first day of classes. But in Maine, officials say that if the trend continues, it could bring more young, working-age people into a state with the oldest median age in the country.

Ava Martineau, from New York, will be an incoming freshman at the University of Southern Maine. She said she could definitely see herself staying in the quieter confines of the state after college. For now, she’s just happy to know that she’ll be seeing her teachers and classmates in person next fall.

“I did pretty much of my entire senior year online, with the exception of, I think, five weeks we had in person,” Martineau said. After more than a year of remote high school classes, the last thing she wants is another year online.

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