Future uncertain for Houlton education center as students use remote learning

11 months ago

HOULTON, Maine — Town tax implications, a loss of educational opportunity and contract renewals were among concerns expressed during an information session Wednesday night regarding the Houlton Higher Education Center’s dwindling in-person enrollment and revenue losses.

“We are not leaving Houlton,” Ray Rice, president of the University of Maine at Presque Isle, told the 60 people who attended the session held at the education center on Military Street.

At the same time, Rice explained that the 15,500-square-foot structure, opened in 2001, was no longer sustainable because the way students learn has changed dramatically and the center no longer needs all that space. 

Remote, online and hybrid classrooms have affected in-person enrollments around the nation, and the University of Maine System will close its Hutchinson Center in Belfast next week amid budget shortfalls due to dwindling numbers.

Earlier this month, the University of Maine System announced that the Houlton-based education center was looking for a partner to purchase the building to assure the center’s future.

With tuition revenues dwindling by more than $100,000 over a four-year period from 2018 to 2022, and building revenue dropping 40 percent over that same period, the building’s current configuration is no longer sustainable, Rice said.

During the meeting, Houlton town supervisor Eileen McLaughlin asked if system officials thought students might return. 

“My students are working, they have babies and they complete assignments at midnight, at 4 a.m., whenever they want to,” psychology professor Frank Thompson said of remote learning. “Will they return? I don’t think so.”

Joe Fagnant, director of the Houlton Hodgdon Adult & Community Education Program, the Northern Maine Community College and superintendent of the Houlton School District, asked if the adult education program and community college leases that expire in December would be renewed at the education center.

“Are we a partner in this new plan?” he asked. “I am actively looking for space, just in case.”

The Military Street building was designed nearly 25 years ago for in-person university-level courses. But today, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, there are almost no students taking classes in the building, and the university now only uses about 25 percent of the space, Rice said.

The addition of more online and virtual courses is a sharp contrast to the classes that the University of Maine at Augusta once offered to Houlton students via closed-circuit television. Now, anyone with a phone can attend via Zoom, Rice said.

“We literally no longer have live instructors on site and the way distance technology is delivered you can do it from a laptop or phone anywhere,” Rice said. The students still need the support services, like tutoring, financial aid and registration in Houlton, he said. 

For 130 years, Ricker College offered Houlton-area students the opportunity to earn a four-year college education. But in 1978, financial difficulties forced the college to close its doors. The gap left by the Ricker College closing spurred a grassroots effort to return a college-level opportunity for southeastern Aroostook County.  

Hannaford gifted the Military Street building, a previous grocery store, for the center and with a $2 million renovation it opened in 2001, offering students the opportunity to receive an associates, bachelors or masters degree from Houlton.

The University of Maine System owns the building and the center is assigned to the University of Maine at Presque Isle. 

Rice said there are six organizations that have expressed interest in the building and they have had preliminary discussions. Still, the University of Maine System board of trustees must approve any proposal from a potential partner, Rice said.

Rice also shared during the meeting that they do not want to partner with someone from away who may want the real estate like people did during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We want to work with the community,” he said. “And tonight is a good step forward.”

They are hoping to have proposals to present to the University of Maine System board of trustees by early September.