Dr. Rebecca Wyke Keynote Address

On October 27, University of Maine at Augusta President, Dr. Rebecca Wyke delivered the keynote address to the UPCEA conference. What follows is the full text of that speech.

I’d like to talk to you about something I’m incredibly passionate about. And, as a numbers person, It’s a number. It’s a number that haunts me. It’s a number that motivates everything I do professionally and it’s a number that I hope will haunt you, too.

That number is 158,000.

158,000 is the number of Mainers who must earn a certificate or degree by 2025 to fill the market need. I probably don’t need to tell you this, but it certainly bears repeating: without those people,  we can’t provide the workforce that our business and industry need.

The fact is, throughout New England, our skilled workforce is diminishing. And that’s bad news because 70% of all jobs in New England require some education beyond high school. Throughout New England, we have an aging population, low unemployment, an uneducated workforce. If we don’t fix this problem, employers are going to be forced to leave.

So, for example, very close to home, just a stone’s throw from this building, WEX Industries in South Portland – can’t find the IT workers they need. They have no choice but to expand elsewhere in the country. We are losing not only those jobs, but also the multiplier effect that those jobs would have on Maine’s economy. The people who would own the restaurants that would serve those IT professionals, the mom & pop shops that would sell them last minute groceries, etc.

What’s making all this worse is that, in Maine, we are in a “demographic winter” meaning that we are experiencing more deaths than births.  We are the oldest state in the nation.  Our median age is 44.5 years old.

So, putting all this bad news together, the question is – how are we going to meet this need? How are we going to address the shortfall of 158,000?

The answer of course is that we need to convince adults with some college to return to school and adults with no postsecondary education to enroll for the first time (Maine’s Adult Promise Grant, 2017).  The good news is that we aren’t starting at zero.  Adult learners already make up 30% of all postsecondary students and the number of adults attending full-time is growing.

Who are the adult learners?  By definition, adult students are 25 or older.  Adult learners often work, full or part-time, or may have returned to school because they were laid off from a job.  Many are raising families or serve as caregivers for aging parents.  Many are low-income and the first in their families to attend college.   Many are place-bound and unable to travel to attend school.  They may  struggle with the re-entry to college. They often lack computer literacy and need developmental support for math or writing.   Adult learners are veterans and active military personnel; immigrants and newcomers; single mothers; and the incarcerated.  Most are looking to improve opportunity for themselves and their families by attaining a college degree.

Serving these people – these important people – these people who are vital to us attaining our goal of closing that gap of 158,000. And serving them well means meeting them where they are and helping them to navigate the complexities of higher education.

These people are not just as a source of additional revenue for our institutions, They are a core segment of our constituencies. And we need to treat them as such.

I’d like to share with you the story of someone I’ll call “Jake”.   As a young man, Jake was convicted of vehicular manslaughter.  An unintentional crime for which he served eight years at the Maine State Prison. While there, he was able to take college level classes from the University of Maine at Augusta towards an associate’s degree in liberal studies ultimately completing his degree.  This experience helped Jake to reclaim his self-esteem, his individuality and his confidence in himself.  Afterward Jake was moved to a minimum security facility where he was out in the community on both work and education release.  He would travel to his job and then to his college classes at UMA’s University College in Rockland, or URock as it’s called, where he worked towards a Bachelor of Science degree in Mental Health and Human Services.  Jake also worked the front desk at URock, earning volunteer hours for credit at UMA towards his tuition.  Through his job, Jake also learned valuable workplace skills, boosting his resume and earning him positive professional references.

From the minimum security facility, Jake moved to the Belfast Re-entry Center which allowed him even more freedom in the community.  Upon full release and towards the end of his degree, Jake returned to the Belfast Re-entry Center for an internship – running groups, facilitating restorative justice circles, and helping others in transition.  When his internship ended and he had graduated with his Bachelor of Science in Mental Health and Human Services, Jake was invited to apply for a full-time case worker position at the Re-entry facility.

UMA was the thread that knit Jake’s experience together and helped him to turn his life around.  Every step of the way he remained committed to earning his bachelor’s degree.  Jake is now in a stable relationship.  He is a homeowner and holds title to a new truck.  His story demonstrates the transformative power of a college education.

Jake’s story also demonstrates how college in prison and a commitment to this population can dramatically change the course of a life. Jake is a productive, well-adjusted citizen.

Ninety-five percent of incarcerated individuals will re-enter society.  How do we want them to do that?  What kind of life are we preparing them to re-enter?  The generosity of Doris Buffet and her Sunshine Lady Foundation helped Jake on his journey by supporting UMA’s program at the Maine State Prison.  The new Second Chance Pell Grant pilot program has allowed us to expand the program and add educational offerings for both the men and the women at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, Maine.

Having worked at both the System level and in state government for years, I know that Federal and state policy plays an important role in reducing barriers and increasing access to higher education for adults as well as all learners.  Let me give you a quick example: there was a law on the books for 20 years saying that credits between public institutions within the U Maine system transfer. And so, a few years ago, I sat in a meeting with high level academic administrators who insisted that all credits transfer but the legislator who who was asking about this didn’t know to ask the next question which is: did those transferred credit hours count toward degree completion? The answer was no.

Federal programs, including Pell, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG), federal work-study, and TRIO programs provide critical resources to students with need.  But resources for these programs do not always keep pace with inflation and a growing need, and are often placed at risk when the federal budget is before Congress.

Here’s an interesting number: 2 out of every 3 adult learners is enrolled in a public institution. That means that state appropriation levels for public colleges and universities have a significant – perhaps the most significant – impact on our ability to adapt to meet the needs of these essential adult student populations.

And let’s be clear: state appropriations do a number of things: one, they provide a general subsidy to reduce the overall cost of education as well as institutional financial aid to bridge the need gap; two, they  support distance learning technology upgrades; and three, they allow us to invest in new and expanded services to support student success like like competency-based education, that are  shown to be successful with adult learners.

Unfortunately, this essential revenue stream does not keep pace with inflation which means of course, we’re losing money.  Here in Maine, in the last ten years of appropriation, including the current biennial budget, the University of Maine System has gained only 2.2% — approximately $4 million – on its E&G funding line.

With state appropriations going down, what’s clear is that we aren’t getting the message out: we need more people to get college degrees. This is essential to the health of our economy. Personally, I would love to see more alliances between higher education, business and industry, nonprofit organizations, foundations, and state agencies who can shout it from the rooftops: We need an educated workforce!

The good news is that, in May of this year Maine was one of four states (WA, OK, MN) to receive funding from the Lumina Foundation for the Adult Promise Grant.  The three-year, $750,000 grant will be used to fund marketing and outreach on the value of credential completion; strengthen and connect wrap around services for adult learners through the creation of a website clearinghouse and the provision of professional development for educators; and promote the creation and testing of last dollar promise grants, emergency financial support, and small debt forgiveness.

As I said before, many adult learners are first generation and low income, with low financial literacy.  Some have the added burden of carrying past higher education debt.  These learners have difficulty finding program supports, and when they do the programs are often limited in scope and under-resourced.

I think about this because I myself was once an adult learner. But here’s the thing: I had resources, my children were grown, I had a steady job, I was not first generation, both parents went to college and yet, I still found it challenging. Not only academically challenging but also, personally challenging. Every night, every weekend for two years. Now, I try to imagine: what if I didn’t have resources? What if I hadn’t been familiar with the academic environment, what if I didn’t have the support of family and was living paycheck to paycheck?

Let me tell you about a woman I met two years ago. Her parents hadn’t saved for college, though she was an A student in high school. She was trying to get her bachelors by saving up, taking a course and then saving up again and taking another course. I found out she was first generation. She had no idea that you had to matriculate, she had no idea that there was such a thing as financial aid that could help her.  I try to keep this in mind when I’m considering our adult population.

The goal of the Maine Adult Promise Grant is to bring transparency and ease of navigation to the experience and aid adult learners in piecing together the supports they will need to persist to degree completion.

Let me tell you about Dori. She  was a University of Maine Augusta student who graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration with a concentration in Management in 2016.  Dori grew up in Oxford Hills and got married after her junior year in high school.  No one in her family had ever attended college.  Although college had always been a dream for her, “life” interfered and literally decades went by.  She got her GED when she was pregnant with her second daughter… [yet] the idea of college remained elusive.  But, five years ago, Dori decided that “it’s time.”  She enrolled at UMA but …. [rarely came] to Augusta, taking most of her classes at … [UMA’s] South Paris/Norway … [University College] Center.  At age 44, Dori graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree… Now, she’s working on a Master’s program in leadership studies… at University of Southern Maine.  What makes her story different is that she never set foot on the Augusta campus because we had distance education. What makes this so important for Maine is that a huge percentage of our potential students live in rural areas.

In 2013, the University of Maine System conducted an internal study in hopes of removing barriers to adult attainment.  I’d like to share some of the recommendations from that study because I think they highlight entrenched barriers and how we might overcome them.

First, offer professional certificates.  Of course, this is the fastest way to meet workplace needs.  At University of Maine Augusta have an 18 credit hour certificate in cyber security. For adult learners, picking up two certificates makes you much more employable than if you get part way through a BA. Hopefully designed so that they can be built upon.

Next, prior learning assessment. We all know this – adults come with experience comes with value. I’d like to tell you about  a woman I’ll call Pamela. Although Pamela had acquired an associate’s degree, the journey to attaining her bachelor’s degree was not an easy one.   After graduating from Old Orchard Beach High School, Pamela entered Westbrook College as a freshman.  Due to financial considerations, she stopped attending in 1991 and was unable to return.  A few years later, Pamela entered the Medical Assistant program at Andover College and received her Associate’s of Science degree in 1995.  At that time, however, Andover College was not fully accredited, which meant her course credits were not transferable to a four-year degree program and so, for the time, she ended her aspirations for continuing her education.

Driven by her desire to attain a baccalaureate degree, Pamela began to re-explore her options in 2008.  She was told she would have to start from the beginning and that none of her prior course credits earned nor her professional knowledge and experience would be applied.  Disappointed and discouraged, Pamela put her educational aspirations on hold once again.

Eighteen years after earning her associate’s degree, Pamela decided to give it another try and reached out to explore options for completing a baccalaureate degree at UMA.  Through the Prior Learning Assessment portfolio process, Pamela was able to bring in 30 credit hours towards her Bachelor of Science in Mental Health and Human Services, saving her one year of college and $7000.

Another thing we’re doing is introducing the “concierge” model to provide a single point of contact for adult learners to access multiple services; think back to your freshman year of college – you have to go to your advisor, you have to get your ID card, you have do do do do. And a lot of institutions pride themselves on this phenomenon and say that this builds grit with their freshmen as they go from one building to another.

But with adult learners, they need hand holding – they don’t know the landscape, they are often first generation, sometimes they are afraid to ask, sometimes they don’t know to ask. It’s easy to lose them at that point. They know they’re way back out the door. So, we’re developing a number of strategies to make sure they stick around. We’ve created a Class Steward program so that a staff member is embedded in each classroom and is the point of contact if someone begins to falter. At the program level, we’re bringing in staff to ensure that programs are streamlined

We want them to know how to access all the services available to them and so we are putting them under one roof, in one location. We have found that adult learners need one stop shopping.

The next recommendation from the study was to enhance online supports for distance learners:  if you never come to campus, how do you get access to library services? If you never come to campus, how do you get access to the writing center? If you never come to campus, how do you find the math center?  So we’re solving this by embedding off-campus librarians. We’ve created an online new student orientation. If you’re at a distance, now, you can simply watch a video that gives you the  ‘just in time’ information you want.

The study also recommended creating professional development opportunities for faculty and staff who work with adult learners.

At U Maine Augusta, we put on annual conference for faculty who teach in distance modalities to share best practices and what’s working because the better they’re curriculum is, the better they teach for distance  learners, the better their outcomes will be.  I don’t want to preach to anyone here but we’re talking about evidence-based practices that are proven to improve outcomes.

Faculty have been hired as subject experts.  These incredibly talented instructors usually teach how they were taught but they probably weren’t taught in a distance format. Dealing with students who are 35 and at a distance is very different from dealing with an 18 year-old who is standing right in front of you. For example, adult learners love to take what they’re learning and apply it to their lives so, for example, in my online Public Budgeting and Financial Management course we use the state budget and the University budget. It’s not theoretical. I have them work with their household budgets because it needs to be meaningful to them. I’m trying to show them that a budget reflects values and, in working with adult learners, they get that because they’re applying the learning to their own experiences — as a pedagogy, they’re going to remember that better.

And the creation of the Adult Degree Completion Scholarship, which targets the 200,000 Mainers with some college who have not yet attained a degree (ABCDE, 2013). Which is possibly the worst position a person can be in – if they took out student loans this is precarious.

One such adult learner is someone I’ll call Sharon.  Like many Maine youth, Sharon graduated from high school and headed off to the University of Maine for her freshman year.  Which, by her own account, she enjoyed immensely.  Academically, however, she was not progressing and so after her first year she stopped out to take a job.  She went on to marry and and become a stay at home mom.  But at mid-life she found herself divorced and wondering what to do with her life.  She found her way to Adult Ed and the Maine College Transitions program.  Here she worked on regaining her math and writing skills and explored her aspirations for continuing her education.

In her forties and afraid of not fitting in on a college campus, Sharon migrated to the Bath/Brunswick Center of UMA’s University College, where she enrolled in courses.  Here, Sharon found a small cohort of friends, some with vastly different experiences than her own, who grounded her in her second college experience.  With no income and one of her own children in college, finances were tight, but the Center staff worked to help her piece together a financial package that allowed her to attend classes full-time.  The Pell Grant, the State of Maine Grant Program, the Maine Department of Labor’s Competitive Skills Scholarship Program, and the University of Maine System’s Adult Degree Completion Scholarship all played a role.

Sharon’s confidence in herself and her abilities has grown over the years.  She gained skills in a work study job, was elected as a Center representative to the Student General Assembly, and excelled in her classes.  Today, she is an active participant on campus and is on schedule to graduate this Spring with her bachelor’s degree.

Last week the University of Maine at Augusta announced its own version of a “Promise” grant to further help students like Sharon, the Pine Tree State Pledge.   Beginning with spring semester 2018, new in-state full-time and part-time transfer students who have earned at least 30 transferable credits, and are new to the University of Maine System will not pay any out-of-pocket expenses for tuition and mandatory fees. In academic year 2018-19, The Pine Tree State Pledge will also be available to qualified and eligible entering full-time first-year students.   To participate students must meet residency requirements, be Pell eligible, maintain a 2.0 GPA, and take a minimum of 30 credit hours per year for full-time students and 15 credit hours per year for part-time students.            The Pledge will be particularly meaningful for UMA’s student population, of which 73% are Pell eligible.  Most importantly, the Pledge says to prospective students, “We listen, we care, we help; you step up and we will be right beside you.”  To put it in the words of one of our trustees (Karl Turner).

As I said, I’m honored to serve as President at University of Maine at Augusta. We have two campuses, eight University College Centers around the the state, and over 30 receive sites.  We have no residential housing and yet our students hail from all 16 counties in Maine and from 451 separate Maine communities.

Sixty-two percent of our students are age 25 or older, with an average age of  33.  Almost half, 49%, are first generation college students.   Seven percent are veterans or active military.  This student profile reflects the distance education mission of UMA, as well as our commitment to serving adult learners.  We employ flexible modalities for the delivery of education – online, ITV, and video conferencing – and flexible supports for students at a distance, such as an online writing lab.  We are committed to providing concierge services to provide one-stop, or one-call, convenience and a warm hand-off for our students.

I feel so very fortunate to have this opportunity to serve as the president of an institution that offers such transformational experiences to our students.  Serving adult learners requires meeting them where they are.  Adult learners are constantly juggling family, work and school and do not need the added difficulties of piecing together the financing of their educations and navigating the complexities of the university setting.

I’d like to leave you with one last story.  This one is from Jeremy and is in his own words.

He writes: In 1991 I graduated from Foxcroft Academy with every intention of attending college and starting a career in business. I started classes at Husson College in the fall on 1991 and by the fall of 1992 had dropped out. It’s not my way to regret my choices in life, it’s the past and what is done is done.

I spent the next 17 years working “go nowhere” jobs, struggling to get by, and pretending I was content with my easy life. This was a lie I told myself. I spent about 5 years addicted to opiates in my early 30’s and eventually made the choice to leave that life behind. Over the course of the first year after my detox, I worked on my health and set new goals for my future. Without these goals in place my commitment to sobriety would have been difficult or perhaps impossible to maintain.

In 2009 I met my wife and we quickly began building a new life together. Our first step in the new life was enrollment in classes at Kennebec Valley Community College, a choice that changed my life forever. I was scared, intimidated, and not very confident in my ability to succeed as an adult student. Within my first 2 semesters at KVCC I quickly realized that I had more potential than I thought, finishing the first year with a 4.0 GPA. My key to success was an unwavering commitment to myself and the process. I listened to my professors and just simply did the work and put in the time. There were plenty of sacrifices, it was not easy, but I did it just the same and graduated from KVCC with a 3.975 GPA and the at top of the Business Admin program.

Before I even graduated from KVCC I had settled into a new career with an amazing local business firm and doubled my income within one year of graduation. The plan to keep going with my education was never in doubt and I enrolled in the Business Admin program at UMA in the fall of 2014. My success at UMA has been equal, following the same plan of commitment and doing the work is paying off in the same way. I am scheduled to graduate in the spring of 2018 and I have big plans for my career moving forward.

Without access to distance learning; in the form of ITV, Blackboard web cast, and hybrid courses, it would have been almost impossible to complete my degree. Working full time and living over an hour away from… [the campus] would have made scheduling impossible. My ability to flex my course schedule each semester, and have the ability to study when it was convenient for me, was a perfect fit, and made it easy to maintain my GPA and manage my class workload.

Being an adult student is an amazing experience. You can prove to yourself who you are, what you are capable of, and build… a better future for your family and yourself. Believe in yourself, believe in the process, commit to it 110% and you will succeed. You can’t fail. Believe in yourself, it doesn’t matter who you were, or who you are, it only matters who you can be. There is no limit to what you can achieve except for the limits you place on yourself. Enroll in school, listen to your professors, do the work and you will achieve your goals.

I’m inspired by Jeremy, and Sharon and all my adult learners and I know they’re making a difference in their own lives and in the lives of the people around them. But I also know that they are doing us a favor. They and thousands like them are closing the gap.  And it’s our job as educators not only to make it possible but to make it probable. This is our moral imperative and what’s great about this mission is that it’s a win win win. It’s a win for them, it’s a win for the region and it’s a win for the country. It’s a big job, but we love a challenge.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *