Redefining 'college' brings new groups into system

The changing coastal economy means more education options help workers, employers

January 20, 2016

Students work at URock


Students at Rockland's "URock" work with an instructor.

Posted January 20, 2016

Last modified January 20, 2016

When Jesse Poole of Vinalhaven was a teenager, he was interested in computer science but he never went to college to study it—or to study anything else for that matter. “Growing up here, it was hard to get away from Vinalhaven,” Poole, now 35, said. “It seemed like too big a change, and then time just went by.”

Poole’s experience is not unusual. The pull of small, coastal communities is a compelling one, especially when those communities are powered by a resource-based industry like lobstering, which, traditionally, has offered a lucrative, respectable career.

But, as Poole has learned, just because he is beyond the traditional age of attending college doesn’t mean he has missed out on a college education. The University of Maine system has offered programs for nontraditional learners for decades but recently launched its One University initiative—a drive to expand access to higher education to Mainers wherever they are—geographically and along life’s journey.

Poole was running the island’s video store but knew it wouldn’t last and he needed to come up with a plan for the future.

“It was getting harder to keep the store going, and I’m in my 30s now and I kind of always wanted to do this computer thing,” he said.

Friends told him about URock—the University College at Rockland—one of eight distance-learning centers that are part of the University of Maine system. “I found out how easy it was to go to school online while I was still doing the video store stuff,” he said. “I thought I’d just give it a shot.” He enrolled part-time in a bachelor of science in computer information systems program in 2014. “I wish I’d known about it sooner,” he said.

URock has been in Rockland for more than 30 years, offering courses taught by faculty on-site, online, via interactive television or two-way videoconferencing. Despite the three-plus decades URock has served the communities along Maine’s coast and islands, college as a path to a career is not top of mind for many in these communities, said Deborah Meehan, URock’s director.

Coastal and island communities have had generational industries like fishing and lobstering so there hasn’t been a need for people to look to college as a path to a career, she said, and because of that, there isn’t a lot of experience or awareness of college in these communities that can help those who may want to step out of the generational pattern of living off the sea.

But times are changing. Meehan is seeing more attention being given to finding alternatives to fishing and lobstering because of the recent uncertainty in the industries—that, and as people age, they’re finding they can’t physically do the hard work required of fishing and lobstering but they haven’t ever prepared to do anything else.

That’s where the University of Maine system and its One University initiative come in.

“With One University," said James Page, the system’s chancellor, "we’re not so much refocusing—in the sense of abandoning or lessening our commitment to traditional education—but expanding [our commitment] to include adult and nontraditional populations.” That expanded commitment, he explained, means that as the university system develops new programs and makes choices around investments, it will factor in how to positively impact adult and nontraditional learners.

For example, the university has broadened some of its scholarship programs to target nontraditional learners.

The Adult Degree Completion Scholarship is a financial incentive to encourage Mainers who have completed some college but haven’t earned a degree to return and complete one. The Osher New Beginnings Scholarship gives Mainers who want to go to college but aren’t sure how it will fit into their lives a risk-free opportunity. The scholarship pays for tuition for two courses, fees and books. Enrollees have no out-of-pocket education expenses while finding out if college is right for them.

While it may seem counterintuitive, reaching nontraditional learners also means reaching young people. To that end, the University of Maine with the Department of Education partners with high schools across the state to offer high school students access to college courses through its High School Aspirations program.

The High School Aspirations program allows high school students to take up to six credits for free. These courses can earn students credit toward high school graduation and college coursework credits—which works out to be a significant savings on college tuition when or if the student enrolls in college after high school graduation.

Chloe Finger, 17, a homeschooler from Rockland, enrolled last year in the High School Aspirations program through URock. The general education courses she has enrolled in, such as public speaking, give her high school and college credits but just as importantly have placed her in classes with a wide range of people—students from all walks of life and from her age group to people in their 70s—providing her with an educational experience that goes far beyond book work.

“I think it’s so interesting that there’s such a wide range of people there," she said. "I’m able to connect with a lot of different people on a lot of different levels and have interesting conversations with everyone just because everyone comes from different backgrounds."

The range of educational experiences at URock—from high school students taking college courses to traditional and nontraditional students taking classes on-site or remotely—encapsulate the One University mission, said the university system’s chancellor.

“It’s really about how the University of Maine system … can really actively serve all these communities in ways that the traditional model … doesn’t do it in the 21st century,” Page said. That’s why programs like High School Aspirations and scholarships for adult learners have, he said, “become part of our norm, not the exception.”

New paths to post-high school education also are critical to employers, who increasingly seek a workforce that can be trained on new technology. And even for lobstering, which for most is an owner-operated small business, education is important.

"You need to understand markets," observed Page, the UMaine chancellor. "You need to understand how what you're doing relates to and is affected by things like climate change. If the water temperatures are changing in the Gulf of Maine, what does that mean? How do you plan and look down the road ten years?" he said. "It's a case of the knowledge is really a core part of one's business."

Contributed by

Stephanie Bouchard