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Educational, community collaborations part of UMPI presidents’ goals

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — After successfully guiding the University of Maine at Presque Isle over the last year and a half, first as interim president and then as permanent leader of the school, Ray Rice has many goals for the largest university in Aroostook County.

When Rice first became interim president of UMPI in May 2016, he had many short-term goals in mind, including making the university more financially secure and providing academic programs that catered to changing demographics in higher education such as non-traditional students and online learning.  Since then Rice has helped UMPI maintain a balanced budget during the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 fiscal years and reach out to more students across Aroostook County and the state of Maine.

In May 2017, the University of Maine System Board of Trustees discontinued its nationwide search and appointed Rice, a former English professor, as UMPI’s official president. Rice spent much time during the following summer developing three main goals: use UMPI’s programming to meet the workforce needs of Aroostook County, give high school and college students greater access to higher education through dual-enrollment, and help UMPI serve as a social and cultural space for the community.

One of the ways in which UMPI has strived to meet workforce needs is through the newly-established online Competency-Based Education Bachelor of Business Administration degree. The university designed the program for adult learners who have some college experience but no degree and allows them to apply past college credit, work experience and other learning toward their bachelor’s degree. CBE BBA has a flat tuition rate of $2,000 per semester and students can complete as many or as little competencies during semesters according to their schedules.

“Through that program adult learners can complete their degree in an environment that allows for flexibility in how they learn,” Rice said. “We started with 100 students this fall and are looking to have 150 this spring, and I’m hopeful that we’ll double that amount next fall. We met with business leaders in The County and really considered what educational needs would help the workforce grow in the area.”  

UMPI also has plans to offer a CBE degree in history for the fall 2018 semester.

Rice is committed to expanding high school students’ access to college courses through dual-degree credit programs. UMPI currently has over 400 high school students enrolled in dual-degree courses, meaning that they obtain both high school and college credit, in nine schools throughout Maine, eight of them in Aroostook County. Those numbers indicate that Aroostook County serves more dual-degree students than anywhere else in the state, which gives students early access to higher education and a greater ability to complete their degree within four years or less.

During his tenure, President Rice plans to develop pathways for UMPI seniors to earn dual-degree credit toward both their bachelor’s degree and graduate school coursework. He and UMPI faculty have had many conversations with faculty from the University of Southern Maine in Portland about offering coursework that would give students credit for master’s degrees in education, data analytics and social services.  He hopes to begin those programs within the next few years.

Through the collaboration with USM, seniors at UMPI would take live courses that UMPI faculty would teach or receive instruction via videoconferencing. Students would then be able to go onto more advanced graduate coursework after graduating from UMPI and complete their degrees online and/or with short-term summer courses. Rice eventually wants to make those online graduate courses available to students who already have a bachelor’s degree. He said that similar conversations are underway between UMPI and the faculty at the University of Maine’s Master of Arts in English program in Orono.

“It’s important for us to find ways to expand our programming and meet the needs of a diverse demographic in the state of Maine, especially here in Aroostook County, whether they’re high school or college students,” Rice said.

Those expanded program offerings will include several new four-year degrees UMPI will offer starting in fall 2018: agricultural science, cybersecurity and nursing, the latter in collaboration with the University of Maine at Fort Kent’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. UMPI will break ground on a new greenhouse in the spring that will allow agricultural science students to collaborate on research projects with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and the MSAD 1 School Farm.

Rice, who is from Massachusetts and came to Presque Isle 20 years ago as an English professor, has embraced Aroostook County as his home. His experiences as a first-generation college student are similar to what many students in northern Maine experience and have influenced his efforts to establish UMPI’s new The Way Life Should Be program, which offers free or significantly reduced tuition and fees for Maine students who qualify for Pell Grant and other federal financial aid.

“I could only go to a college that met my parents’ financial needs, so I know how serious of an issue college is for the average American family. I want more students to know that college is an affordable, viable option for them,” Rice said.

In the meantime, Rice has enjoyed moving himself and his family into the president’s house on campus, also known as the Smith House, and continuing to be active in the community as part of the Presque Isle Rotary Club, Presque Isle Downtown Revitalization Committee and Board of Directors for the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone.

“I don’t think we are in a world where we cannot collaborate,” Rice said. “With all of us working together within the university and community college systems and community, we can take down as many barriers as we can for students.”

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