In a few weeks, thousands of Mainers will head to the Augusta Civic Center for the annual high school basketball tournament. Few of those who attend, however, will be aware that one of Maine’s most beautiful university campuses lies only a few hundred yards away.

Blessed with more than 150 acres of publicly accessible woodland walking trails, attractive classroom buildings and laboratories and the home of Maine’s Holocaust and Human Rights Center, the campus exudes a compelling physical presence.

More importantly than its aesthetics, however, this university has quietly and impressively shouldered a critical statewide responsibility for half a century: ensuring that every Mainer — regardless of geography, age or economic condition — gets a chance to attend higher education.

In 1965, the Maine Legislature established the University of Maine at Augusta to reach residents of every age in this region. Later, UMA’s mission expanded to every part of the state. This mission has always been important; today is it critical. Significant global economic restructuring, aging demographics and intensifying financial pressures on Maine working families make affordable, career-focused education essential, not only to the individual student, but also for Maine’s economic survival.

When a Maine business closes, UMA works with laid-off workers, and state and regional partners to rebuild hope and offer new career opportunities. When a single mother decides she must return to school both for fiscal security and as a model for her children, UMA offers support and flexibility to make it possible.

When Maine high school graduates seek some of the best (and most affordable) aviation, architecture and arts/music programs in the northeast, UMA stands out. And when our veterans return from their tours of duty, UMA welcomes and supports them like few other schools in the country. Indeed, UMA has been recognized for its commitment to and stellar support of veterans by GI Jobs, Military Times and US News & World Reports.

Our outstanding faculty and staff in Augusta, Bangor and at the University College Centers execute our mission superbly, educating and supporting UMA students with excellence. Since its founding 50 years ago, UMA has awarded more than 18,000 degrees, and those degrees have gone to work for Maine. The overwhelming number of our graduates are from Maine, raise their families in Maine, and intend to leave their mark here.

As we celebrate our first 50 years, however, we already are preparing for our next 50 years. We plan to:

• Continue to be a superb value. UMA today offers the lowest tuition rate in the state for a bachelor’s degree.

• Continue to identify and grow programs that meet key state needs as we do now in the areas of computer information systems, nursing, dental hygiene and mental health.

• Increase the number of Maine adults who possess a bachelor’s degree, thereby meeting one of the most pressing challenges facing our state, our economy and our people. It is estimated that 95,000 people in Maine’s existing workforce will need to acquire a higher education degree in the next 10 years.

As the premier institution in the state for serving the adult learner, as well as for delivering programs online and at a distance, UMA is better positioned than any institution in Maine to lead the way in addressing this workforce “education deficit.”

To celebrate our first 50 years while preparing for our next 50, we have launched a 50th Anniversary Fund campaign. Money raised will be used for student scholarships, supporting veterans enrolled at UMA, and strengthening our online and distance education. We are more than halfway to fundraising goal of $5 million, and we hope even more members of the community will help us reach our goal in the months ahead.

The goal behind the financial goal is to support our essential population of diverse students, for whom even scholarships of just a few hundred dollars can make a huge difference in their success.

Fifty years ago, one of UMA’s key founders, Bennett Katz, said, “Over the next 50 years, I would hope that UMA is allowed to become what it is capable of becoming, what the needs of our people would have it become.”

And so should it be for our next 50, too.

Glenn Cummings is the president of University of Maine at Augusta.

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