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The University of Maine’s Flagship Match program includes aggressive advertisements.

University of Maine

The University of Maine went fishing for students out west for the second year of its flashy tuition-matching program targeting new first-year students from out of state.

It won a small number of additional commitments from far-flung Illinois and California. But the efforts didn’t yield nearly the number of student commitments that the program continues to attract from nearby states, which are tuition-matching targets for the second straight year. The program’s growth rate has slowed for those closer-to-home states but still represents a significant boost for a cold-weather locale facing sharp declines in the number of expected high school graduates in coming years.

The university's much-touted Flagship Match program might not be able to expand exponentially into the future. But data from its second year suggest it might create lasting gains in enrollment -- from nearby New England states, at the very least. It's a success driven by simplicity, according to Jeffrey Hecker, provost of the University of Maine in Orono.

“My enrollment-management guy calls it ‘the sizzle,’” Hecker said. “One of the things that’s appealing about the Flagship Match is the simplicity of it. We list our criteria. We say, ‘If you make it, you’re going to get this scholarship.’ I think that’s appealing to a lot of parents.”

The University of Maine drove up out-of-state enrollment last year with Flagship Match, a merit scholarship program that offsets tuition and fees paid by out-of-state students taking 15 credits per semester. The program is designed so that a first-year student from one of several other states can attend the flagship University of Maine in Orono for the same tuition and fees as they would pay if they attended the flagship campus in their home state. The scholarship is renewable for up to four years.

The program is designed to work on the idea that students will be willing to travel to attend another state’s flagship campus if they do not have to pay sharply higher out-of-state tuition rates. Students might be attracted to the idea of attending college out of state. Or they might not have gained admission to their state’s most selective flagship campus and would rather attend Maine’s flagship than another, less-selective public institution in their own state.

For the University of Maine, the program is a way to attract new students to a state with a plummeting number of high school graduates. It is also a chance to increase selectivity and boost net tuition revenue by bringing in out-of-state students who pay higher tuition and fees than do in-state students. Flagship Match students don’t pay the full out-of-state student rate, but they still pay rates that are higher than Maine’s in-state tuition and fees.

For example, take a Flagship Match participant from Massachusetts -- the state that sends the most students to Maine. An undergraduate student from Massachusetts would normally pay $29,498 in tuition and fees to attend Orono in the 2016-17 academic year. But the Flagship Match scholarship is worth $14,527 for Massachusetts students, bringing tuition and fees down to $14,971. That’s the same amount it would have cost that student to attend the flagship University of Massachusetts Amherst, before factoring in any financial aid that university would offer. That sticker price is still more than the $10,628 a Maine resident pays in quoted tuition and fees.

Full Flagship Match awards are available to students with a minimum grade point average of 3.0 and an SAT score of at least 1120 or an ACT composite score of at least 22. Maine also offers $9,000 awards to students with lower GPAs and test scores.

The University of Maine started the program in fall 2016 with an $8.5 million aid budget, offering it to students in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont. Those states did not report seeing their enrollments drop off significantly as a result of the new competition. But the University of Maine still reported significant success for its 2,230-student freshman class. Out-of-state commitments for the fall rose by more than 50 percent as of last May.

The university did not lose a larger share of commitments than usual during its summer melt period, Hecker said. Summer melt last year was slightly more than 10 percent across the university, about the same as rate it had been without the Flagship Match program.

Commitments across the six original states continued to rise for fall 2017, according to new data the university released. They grew at a slower pace, however.

As of May 2, 2017, confirmations for first-year students to enroll in the fall from the original six Flagship Match states had grown by 17 percent over the same time in 2016, to 1,022. That was a slower rate of growth than experienced from 2015 to 2016, when freshmen confirmations from the six states spiked by 55 percent -- to 873 -- under what was then a new program.

In 2017, confirmations from Connecticut students still rose significantly, jumping by 45 percent to 172. Massachusetts was the most popular Flagship Match state for the second straight year, with confirmations from students there rising more slowly, by 10.6 percent, to 565. More students from Pennsylvania and New Jersey also committed in 2017 than did in 2016.

Students from Vermont committed in roughly the same number -- 38 in 2017 versus 39 the year before. Commitments from New Hampshire dropped by 20 percent to 82.

Hecker believes New Hampshire was an outlier because of a new program guaranteeing that full-time first-year Pell Grant recipients will pay no tuition to attend the University of New Hampshire. About a fifth of the University of Maine’s Flagship Match students were Pell eligible in 2016.

“Application numbers were close to the same, but the confirmations were down,” Hecker said of New Hampshire students. “I’m quite confident that is what’s happened.”

Commitments for fall 2017 arrived in much smaller numbers from California, Illinois and Rhode Island, the three states added to the program this year. As of May 2, 19 students committed from California, up from 10 last year. This year 11 Illinois students committed, up from five last year. The same number of Rhode Islanders -- 32 -- committed in 2016 and 2017.

Rhode Island was added to the program in large part to make it available throughout New England, Hecker said. He theorized that Maine might not have drawn Rhode Island students because the flagship universities in Maine and Rhode Island are closer in terms of selectivity than are the flagships in Maine and other states. The University of Maine tends to be less selective than other states’ flagship universities.

On the other hand, administrators viewed California and Illinois as trials this year. Both were attractive because they charge in-state students significantly higher tuition and fee rates than does the University of Maine. Yet they are also notable in that their flagships are much more selective than the university in Orono. Even the less-selective universities in the UC system, like Merced and Riverside, admit sharply lower percentages of applicants -- and applicants with much stronger transcripts -- on average, than does the University of Maine.

So Maine administrators did not dedicate too many resources to the two states in their first year.

“We were, in a way, testing the waters,” Hecker said. “We didn’t do very many of the traditional recruiting things there. We did a very little bit of advertising.”

But after seeing some small successes in the first year, the University of Maine will likely increase its investment in recruiting in the two states going forward, Hecker said.

Admissions experts were not surprised to hear that the University of Maine is attempting to compete with other states’ universities on price. Nor were they surprised that the Flagship Match program’s growth slowed in its second year and as it was extended farther from home.

Bill Hall is the founder and president of Applied Policy Research Inc., an enrollment and pricing advising firm. APR often works with private institutions, but Hall has also had clients like the State Student Assistance Commission of Indiana and the Minnesota Community College System.

“This year in particular was not a year to go out nationally looking for growth,” Hall said. “We’re operating against a backdrop of generally slack demand.”

Demand tends to be worse the farther northeast you go, Hall said. Maine is fighting demographic trends with a strategy that started out entirely focused in the northeast. Plus, it’s sledding uphill in trying to bring students from California to Maine.

“Getting people to move from warmer climates to cold areas is always difficult,” Hall said.

The University of Maine’s first-year commitments from within the state this year fell significantly, dropping 8.5 percent to 1,235. Some of that drop is because of a declining number of high school students in Maine, Hecker said. The university also cut a program largely made up of in-state students that allowed students who did not meet admissions standards to matriculate at the University of Maine. Additionally, some other campuses in the Maine university system, like the University of Southern Maine in Portland, are attracting students, Hecker said.

Over all, the university’s 9,300-student undergraduate enrollment is about 30 percent out-of-state students. The goal is to increase it to 40 percent, Hecker said.

Other key indicators at the university have remained largely the same or changed only slightly with the continuation of the Flagship Match program. The mean SAT score of students confirming for the fall 2017 freshman class increased five points, to 1149. The confirming freshman class remained largely white -- about 89 percent in both 2016 and 2017. The out-of-state tuition discount rate ticked up by two points, to 39 percent.

Administrators don’t count on 50 percent annual growth from the program, Hecker said. But they do believe they can add more students from Illinois and California.

“It won’t be anything like we had this year in Massachusetts and Connecticut,” Hecker said. “But given what we saw in year one, we think there’s room for growth there.”

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