AUGUSTA, Maine — Leaders of Maine higher education institutions vowed Thursday to continue to adapt to the state’s needs and build a skilled workforce, but said they need the Legislature’s continued support to succeed.
University of Maine System Chancellor James Page, Maine Community College System President John Fitzsimmons and Maine Maritime Academy President William Brennan addressed a joint session of the Maine Legislature on Thursday.
Each institution faces its own stark challenges, with a declining pool of high school graduates to draw from, aging infrastructure and a shortage of state funding and federal funding to pump into improvements.
Page stressed the steps the University of Maine System has taken to mitigate the fiscal, demographic and infrastructure challenges it has faced since he became chancellor a year ago.
“Public higher education must be affordable, accessible, top-quality, and it must be relevant,” Page said. “A relevant education prepares people to be engaged citizens as well as productive employees.”
The system attempted to tackle the “affordable” aspect in January 2012, freezing in-state tuition for the first time in 25 years in exchange for flat funding from the state. University system officials have said they are “pleased” to receive a steady level of funding this year, while they make changes to reduce costs and improve the system over the long term.
Page presented a sobering statistic from the Maine Development Foundation, which found that 230,000 Mainers began, but did not finish, their post-secondary studies.
“The financial cost of this stranded investment is in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” Page said. “The cost in human capital — of stranded goals and dreams — is immeasurably greater.”
However, that also presents an opportunity to reach out to some of those former students and get them to come back to the system to finish their degrees, Page said.
The system also has made attempts to meet the needs of Maine employers. Page cited UMaine’s launch of Project>Login, an attempt by the system to attract more computer science and information technology students, as an example of how the university would attempt to shuffle students into in-demand careers. Such programs will give employers the workers they need and help move Maine’s economy forward, he said.
“With your help, the University of Maine System will be the most responsive public university system in the country,” Page told legislators.
Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs, said after the address that he believed the system is “100 percent on the right track.” He said it appeared Page is pushing the system to adapt in the context of the economic environment by exploring ways to trim administration and building on what the universities do well.
Fitzsimmons said that Maine’s community college system will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its switch from technical colleges to community colleges this fall.
“In those 10 years, our enrollment has increased by more than 80 percent,” Fitzsimmons said.
Over the past four years, enrollment increased more than 25 percent, while state appropriations increased by a little more than 2 percent, making keeping up with the growth a challenge, he said.
“The hallmark of our 57-year history has been our willingness to adapt to our workforce needs in an ever-changing economy without ever losing sight of the need to provide high-quality education at an affordable price,” Fitzsimmons said.
He stressed the need to make college degrees attainable and affordable for Mainers.
“College used to be for the few,” Fitzsimmons said. “It is now a must for the many.”
In its first nine years, the system’s enrollment grew by an average of 9 percent annually, but it grew by just 1 percent last year, according to Fitzsimmons.
“We’ve hit a wall,” he said.
With limited funding for expansions, the system has had to turn away more than 8,000 students in the past two years.
Fitzsimmons urged the Legislature to consider long-term investments in Maine’s “human infrastructure.”
“There is one inescapable truth and it is this: technology and capital know neither boundaries nor loyalty,” Fitzsimmons said. “The only permanent asset we have as a state is our workforce.”
Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Lincoln, another member of the education committee, said he is concerned the community college system “is not big enough to meet the requirements of current times,” but funding to help it grow significantly isn’t available.
He also said the system should strive to improve its graduation rate, which is below 50 percent.
Brennan said that the most important message he could convey to legislators is that “[Maine Maritime Academy is] doing great. We have record applications, our job placement is above 90 percent in the first six months after graduation, and we’re providing amazing careers for young women and men in this state.”
While that job placement statistic is the “envy of most other institutions,” the academy still faces challenges.
“We’re at a critical crossroads,” Brennan said. “We’re facing pressure to grow in difficult economic times.”
The academy has not added a classroom building in 30 years, he said, noting that his institution needed up-to-date facilities to match its students’ needs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Instead of new construction, MMA has been retrofitting 1860s-era buildings to modern needs.
“We have arrived at the point of diminishing returns,” Brennan said. “These buildings can no longer accommodate the ever increasing technological advances our form of instruction requires.”
It’s unlikely higher education institutions will see any significant boosts from the state in this year’s budget.
“It would be nice if we could provide more resources,” Johnson said, “but it’s not really feasible in this budget.”
Johnson said he feels a little “guilty” when the University of Maine System is happy with the fact that it received flat funding, but that it is a reality that results from a difficult fiscal climate.