College retention data lacks the reality of many Maine college students’ experiences!

Matthew Stone’s February 28th piece in the Bangor Daily “Is Michaud’s free sophomore year a good idea?” was rich with statistics, but unfortunately lacking the voice of real experiences from Maine students.

To quote Gillian Jordan, Dean of University of Maine Augusta’s Bangor Campus, “The data used in Stone’s article comes from IPEDS, a national database that counts only first time, full-time students. Generally, this describes traditional aged students (18-22), who, on average, take 3 years for an associate’s and 6 years for a bachelor’s degree. For UMA, this means that only 311 of our approximately 5,000 students statewide (6%) have been included in this data.  So what about the other 94% who are not counted?

The Associate Degree in Liberal Studies, with a concentration in Women’s Studies, that I earned when I graduated at the top of my class from UMA Bangor in 2009, does not fit neatly into those statistics! I earned that degree taking one class a semester while raising four children and working multiple part-time jobs, over an 11 year period. Let me tell you, when my children and my mother watched me cross that stage at graduation, that degree counted!

Let’s talk about a few other people not counted in those statistics as well.

For many years I worked for The Learning Center here in Bangor. The Learning Center is part of  Bangor Adult and Community Education. Without a doubt it was my most personally satisfying job. In addition to maintaining a database for federal grant reporting, my job was “intake and assessment.” There were two of us in the front office and between us we interviewed and tested hundreds of adults each year. We were the first people they encountered when they walked in. We were the first people they told their stories to. We administered diagnostic testing and then sent them on, depending on their needs, to take their GEDs, to sign up for high school classes, to get tutoring in reading or math, or to meet with a college counselor.

We had folks from every walk of life. We had people who had not finished high school, for any number of reasons, who now wanted to complete this long put off goal. We had people who just wanted to go back to school for personal fulfillment or who put off their own educations while raising children and now wanted a chance to go to college themselves!  We had lots and lots of people who were laid off from jobs and needed to re-train. We also had unwed mothers, folks on probation, people with learning disabilities, and students from Job Corps.

Many were people for whom life had been unfair, unnecessarily hard and sometimes down-right cruel. Yet, every single one of them had found the courage to walk through that door and give it another shot. A good portion of these students ended up going to Eastern Maine Community College, Beal College, or UMA Bangor. I too, encouraged by their examples, would eventually find the courage to follow these students and earn my first college degree at the age of 43.

Most universities were designed as four-six year programs for students just leaving high school. However, in today’s world, in this economy, on the tail end of a decade of war, the typical face of a college freshman is not always the face you would imagine it to be.

Stone tells us that only two-thirds of high school graduates nationwide have enrolled in college the fall after graduating from high school. Stone sees this as a failure. However, there are many sides to this story. While some students don’t attend college right away because of financial constraints, or because they weren’t adequately prepared in high school, many others simply choose a more colorful path.

Among my children, two daughters, my son-in-law and my foster son all served with Americorps for a year after graduating high school.  While every single one of them was discouraged from this path by teachers and guidance counselors, the statistics for my family prove that this was the right course for them. One of my daughters now has a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from USM, the other has an Associate Degree and is a full-time yoga teacher and a part-time USM student. My son-in-law graduated from Johnson and Wales University in RI and my foster son went on to be part owner in a local business, all after taking that gap year to participate in Americorps.

My oldest son is now a student a UMaine after several semesters getting his feet wet at the UMA Bangor. He served 5 years active duty in the military after graduating Bangor High School. My youngest daughter is now a junior at UMaine. She has been going to school part-time and working since she graduated in order to avoid the huge student loan debt that one of her sisters is burdened with. Today, I hold a good job at the University of Maine and have just signed up for the last semester of my second college degree, a Bachelor of University Studies with minors in English and Women’s Studies. No, we did not all attend college right out of high school, but to count any of us among statistics that would say we had somehow failed, or that our colleges had failed, would be ridiculous.

Whether its single moms, or laid off mill workers, or veterans, the community of the University of Maine Augusta-Bangor, meets the needs of the non-traditional student in ways that a larger campus simply cannot. The needs of adult learners are complicated and varied. While there are many programs that help non-traditional students succeed the bottom line is that a four-year plan on a traditional campus simply will not work for everyone. Smaller campuses provide an opportunity to have the needs of non-traditional students understood and met.

Whether or not Michaud’s plan for two free college semesters for Maine students is a good or bad idea, I cannot say but I applaud his effort to think outside the usual box! I’ll leave the final debates up to my political blogger friends. I talk about the human experience, and this was mine. All I ask is that when discussing the issues of how to help Maine students succeed, let’s use examples and data that reflects the many faces of all Maine students and all of Maine’s varied and valuable college campuses.

I am proud to be a graduate of the UMA Bangor and proud of the work all of the University of Maine System campuses do and the rest of our state should be as well!

 

Parts of this story were originally published in Postcards from a Work in Progress, on the Bangor Daily News website in January, 2012. For the original story, as well as links to resources in our area for non-traditional students, please visit that story at postcardsforaworkinprogress.bangordailynews.com.

 

Karen Foley

About Karen Foley

Karen Foley, has successfully been writing her blog for the BDN for over two years. By successful, she means a few people read it, and she has not been sued, stalked or fired since starting it.