EDUCATION

USM pledges $1M more in financial aid to help turn around enrollment decline

University of Southern Maine President Selma Botman announces a $1 million increase in institutional financial aid for students.
University of Southern Maine President Selma Botman announces a $1 million increase in institutional financial aid for students.
Posted Dec. 06, 2011, at 5:54 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 07, 2011, at 10:54 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — University of Southern Maine President Selma Botman announced today that the school will inject an additional $1 million into financial aid for students, in an effort to battle back debt loads for graduates and reverse an enrollment slide causing trouble with the campus budget.

Botman told reporters in a news conference at Payson Smith Hall that university administrators will find $1 million in savings from other parts of the budget — including personnel, facilities upkeep and utility payments — to cover the institutional financial aid increase.

The university president said school officials annually shift budgetary funds to “areas of greatest need,” and that scholarship offerings have been identified as such a need. She said the USM decision to dedicate more money to financial aid is an entirely local choice, and she’s unaware of similar initiatives being taken at other campuses in the University of Maine system or elsewhere. The University of Southern Maine has a yearly budget of about $140 million.

“This is purely a campus decision,” Botman said. “We have complete control of how we allocate and spend our money.”

The money, which will be added to about $7 million the school offers to students in the form of financial aid each year, will benefit 83 or 84 new students previously not receiving such scholarship money, she said.

Botman said about 85 percent — or more than 6,000 — USM students receive some form of financial aid, whether the help comes from federal, state or institutional sources. About half of those 6,000 receive local scholarship money.

“We are very committed to having our students graduate with as little debt as possible,” Botman said. “We are hoping to attract more students as we distribute this financial aid.” She said the average USM graduate leaves the university with about $26,000 in debt.

In a December budget update posted on the USM Public Affairs Office website, the school acknowledged a 4 percent decrease in the number of credit hours students have enrolled in during the fall semester, translating into a projected 2.3 percent — or $1.9 million — dropoff in tuition and fee revenues by the end of the fiscal year.

The Public Affairs Office noted school officials will seek to cover the $1.9 million budget shortfall with “savings from unfilled, vacant positions; lower fuel and electricity spending; and revenues from indirect cost recovery. The funds we receive [will be used] to cover the overhead associated with grants and contracts.”

Botman on Tuesday suggested the university also needs to take an additional step of trying to turn the enrollment around by making the school an affordable option in a tough economy.

That was good news to Chris Camire, president of the USM student body.

“It really does help, especially as we’re dropping in numbers recently,” he said. “It’ll help us re-roll the snowball, so to speak. If enrollment is down, we get less student activity fees and have less resources to offer programs that help create this campus environment.”

In addition to the $1 million increase in institutional financial aid, Craig Hutchinson, the school’s chief student affairs officer, said USM has set aside an additional $100,000 in the current fiscal year to help on-campus students drive down housing costs.

“We’re trying to make it possible for them to continue in school with less of a financial burden,” he said.

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