Education Desk: Maine Fishes For Future Flagship Students In Illinois

Nov 29, 2016

Illinois has long been number two in the nation for a rather dubious distinction -- the net out-migration of college students. Now there’s a new program targeting Illinois high school students who want to attend a state flagship university, even if it’s not in Illinois. The catch? You’re going to need to love flannel shirts, lobster, and maybe not come home for Thanksgiving.

The program, called Flagship Match, is designed to lure Illinois students to the University of Maine. It’s the brainchild of Jeff Hecker, provost of Maine’s main campus.

"We refer to it as U-Maine,” Hecker says, making it sound a lot like the word “humane.” He says the school is known for engineering, forestry and marine sciences.

I asked him to explain his plan to poach Illinois students.

“The idea behind the program is that for students who meet the eligibility requirements, we’ll provide them with a merit-based scholarship that brings the cost of coming to the University of Maine down to the cost equalling their going to the flagship campus in their state,” he says. “In your case, it would be coming to the University of Maine for the cost of going to the University of Illinois.”

Those “eligibility requirements” he mentioned include having a high school GPA of at least 3.0, and an SAT score of at least 1120. Students who don’t quite meet that criteria can qualify for a lesser award that helps offset the out-of-state tuition rate.

U-Maine launched this program last year, in part because U-Maine hasn’t raised its in-state tuition rate for the past six years. Hecker says the idea came from tracking data on out-of-state applicants U-Maine accepted, who ultimately chose to go to a different school.

“The largest chunk -- about 20 or 25 percent -- were going to other universities like ours: Other land grant, flagship universities like University of Connecticut, University of New Hampshire, University of Massachusetts at Amherst. So we said gee, they’re obviously interested in a school like us, that is a public research university with Division 1 sports and opportunities for students to be involved in research, so let’s look at how we might attract students to reconsider U-Maine,” Hecker says.

Initially, U-Maine offered its Flagship Match program to students in six neighboring states -- all of which have higher in-state tuition rates.

“So the size of the scholarship depends on what state you’re from, and this works well for our institution because all of these states have higher in-state tuition rates than we have. So students come to our state, to University of Maine, and they pay a bit more than Maine students, but not the full rate that we would normally charge for out-of-state,” Hecker says.The program proved successful from the start.

“Our entering first-year class this year was about 200 students more than last year, and it was the largest in the University of Maine’s history for a first-year entering class,” Hecker says. “And we tracked, you know, where did this growth come from? And all the growth came from out-of-state, and primarily from the six states that we designed the Flagship Match around."

Emboldened by that success, U-Maine this year added two non-New-England states: California and Illinois.

“We looked around the United States of America and at two things,” Hecker says. “One of them was what are they charging for in-state rates in their state for the flagship campus? And we identified states that had a reasonable difference. That is, it’s more expensive for a student to go. So that makes it financially viable for Maine.

“And the other goal we had was, we’re interested in diversifying our student population. Illinois has a nice diverse base of people, and so we thought this could work toward that goal as well.”

Did the fact that Illinois is in budget turmoil have anything to do with it?

“Well, only in so much as that impacted what you’re charging Illinois kids to go to University of Illinois,” Hecker says. “I’ve kept track of it a bit. I’m a University of Illinois alum.”

Hecker, from the Chicago suburb Arlington Heights, majored in psychology and graduated from UIUC in 1981, which qualifies him to predict how a Chicago kid might like life at U-Maine.

“It’s different. It’s a different kind of environment,” he says. “I actually moved to Maine just to go to graduate school. I intended to stay here just to get my PhD and leave, but I found that this was, from my point of view, a pretty great place to live. So what they’ll find is what I think of as sort of the best of both worlds. If you’re thinking about going to a relatively small New England college or university, we have a beautiful campus here right on the Stillwater River, lots of outdoor activities, about an hour from the coast, about two hours from skiing in the mountains, people come from all over to see the fall foliage, and experience the Maine way of life. So it’s a really wonderful place to live.”

Hecker admits: The fall foliage is likely to be more of an attraction for parents during Parents Weekend than for the students themselves.

The campus is located in Orono, a town of about 10,000, that doubles in population during the school year. It’s not anything like Chicago.

“There’s a Starbucks on campus, but not in town. The town is a real small college town,” Hecker says, “but we have four local brewpubs, we have pizza places and the Thai restaurant. You know, it’s got -- for a small town in Maine -- a fair amount of culture. We are about eight miles from Bangor, Maine, so Bangor’s the third-largest city in the state, but still, by Illinois standards, a small city.

“But the other thing we have is: We’re a research university. We have world-class faculty, we have research facilities, and undergraduate students have the opportunity to work with faculty. I think because of our small size, it’s relatively easier for them to get to know our faculty, to have opportunities to work in their laboratories and collaborate on research and creative activity.”

As for those Division 1 sports, UMaine’s football team, the Black Bears, has been on a five-game winning streak. They compete in the “football championship series,” which is one rung below the level for bowl games. U-Maine’s hockey team, on the other hand, has twice won the national championship. “That’s our glamor sport,” Hecker says.

"I will say Maine is a wonderful place to support basketball. I imagine you never heard of our basketball team either, but it’s actually the women’s basketball team that’s been the stronger of the two and has a very loyal following,” he says. “Women’s sports receive, I would say, equal attention here.”

What about student traditions? For example, does U-Maine have anything like the U. of I.’s “unofficial St. Patrick’s” celebration, where bars on Green Street open early in the morning, and students spend the day drinking?

“We have some quirky traditions,” Hecker says. “We used to have a concert called Bumstock. I’m not sure, but I think the name was a play on Woodstock. I believe they still have the Bumstock concert every spring.

“I will tell you even though I don’t recall Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day, they did have (at U. of I.) -- this was a different time, of course, the late 1970s -- ‘Hash Wednesday.’ Everyone went to the quad and smoked pot on a certain Wednesday. I think they’ve managed to get rid of that. I only went to observe, of course!”

Any Illinois student interested in attending U-Maine has until February 1 to apply.