One of the key measures of the success of the University of Maine System is accessibility. If classes are not within easy driving distance for part-time and commuting students, and if tuition is too high, the system will not achieve its mission. That mission, to connect more Mainers with post-secondary degrees, is important not just for the individuals who earn them. It is essential to grow Maine’s economy.
The university system has taken some strides to create more on-ramps for post-secondary education. But by the tuition measure, it is failing to keep that education within reach financially.
System Chancellor Richard Pattenaude, who will be stepping down from the post next year, has worked effectively to cut expenditures for next year. But since tuition will be 4.3 percent higher, it seems clear that not enough was cut. While the chancellor and board of trustees are congratulating themselves on a tuition rate increase that is lower than those of the last four years — 4.8 percent this year, 5.8 percent in 2010, 10.3 percent in 2009 and 10 percent in 2008 — the relentless price hike for students who enrolled four years ago has been a high wall to climb.
Observers of state government know that subsidies to the university system have dropped as tax revenues also dropped because of the recession. But students and their families have little sympathy for such explanations. Tuition is just another escalating cost to them, one that is increasingly hard for many to stomach, especially since it is often financed through loans.
The Institute for College Access and Success found that in 2009, 77 percent of University of Maine graduates borrowed money to pay for school and left the university with an average debt of $30,824.
While it’s true that the university system’s tuition hikes are tracking with nationwide trends, trustees must push harder to rein in costs. In Maine, a low-income state, this is especially critical. Maine’s lowest-in-New-England in-state tuition rate for land grant schools is not enough to claim success. Undergraduate tuition and fees as a percentage of median household income in Maine ranges between 27 percent at the Augusta campus to 46 percent at the Farmington campus.
This is unacceptably high.
If more cuts, consolidation and efficiencies are the way to more stable tuition, then this is the course the trustees must chart. Chancellor Pattenaude has shown that he understands the challenges of operating in a post-recession environment. The next chancellor must begin his or her tenure with even stricter fiscal parameters, with tuition rates as an obvious and easy measure of success.
There are, of course, other critical measures of university success. They include the academic standards as compared to other institutions, graduation rates, how long it takes students to graduate, job placement rates, and research and development gains. But if tuition becomes a threshold too high to jump, success on those other fronts will be meaningless.