Delivering public higher education in a state with a rapidly aging population is a complicated puzzle for the University of Maine System chancellor.

But it’s not just a problem for him. When the state lags behind its neighbors in degree attainment and businesses have to look elsewhere for qualified workers, the drag on Maine’s economy affects us all.

Last week, the UMaine System announced a small but important step in a much larger reform project.

The smallest campus in the system, UMaine Machias, will be working with the largest, the flagship campus in Orono, to integrate administrative and academic programs. If successful, the partnership could help Machias survive troubling trends.

Machias currently has an enrollment of 786, which is not enough to maintain staff and infrastructure. It needed $1 million in emergency funds from the rest of the system to balance its last budget. The number of Washington County high school graduates has declined by 31 percent since 2007, drastically cutting the pool of potential future students.

It is in one of the poorest corners of the state that desperately needs the university’s presense, not just as a major local employer but also as a catalyst for business growth.

The extent of the cooperation between Machias and Orono will be roughed out by a team of faculty and administrators from both campuses over the next eight months. The possibilities are exciting.

Machias could be able to focus on what makes it unique in the system — its location on the coast. It could be the go-to institution for marine resource research and education, and students enrolled there could do additional coursework at Orono, just 100 miles away.

UMaine could also offer its students an opportunity to do projects or spend a semester at the oceanside campus.

That kind of experience would be an added selling point for the flagship campus in its recruitment of students from other states.

Thanks to innovative marketing and financial incentives, the university has stopped its enrollment decline and fended off program cuts. Offering prospective students the chance to live and work near the ocean for part of their education would be a strong attraction for many.

This effort should be good news for Washington County, which can continue to depend on having a healthy university campus that improves people’s lives.

The challenge for the university system is to adapt to a state that has fewer college-age residents at the same time that higher education itself is becoming more important to the state’s economy. The state can’t just cut programs or campuses; it has to redirect scarce resources more efficiently.

The partnership between the Machias and Orono campuses is a step toward building a sustainable university that meets many needs, and it’s a welcome one.