March 22, 2019
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UMaine expects budget gap could hit $7.2 million next year

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
University of Maine president Susan Hunter.

ORONO, Maine — The state’s flagship university will have to weigh changes to close a budget gap of up to $7.2 million in its next fiscal year, university officials announced Monday.

“There’s no way to dispel everyone’s anxiety,” University of Maine President Susan Hunter said Monday morning. “This is hard work and it’s difficult, and people are concerned, but we want to make it as transparent as possible.”

University officials discussed the preliminary state of the budget for fiscal year 2017, which will take effect in July 2016, during a meeting with faculty and staff Monday at Wells Commons. They urged the university community to chime in early and often throughout the budgeting process, as officials weigh where priorities should be placed.

UMaine anticipates expense increases in several “priority” areas, including $2.8 million in negotiated contractual employee compensation hikes; investments in “signature and emerging areas,” such as forestry, engineering and STEM education; and a $2 million boost to financial aid in hopes of attracting and keeping more students, especially those from median-income households.

The projected expenses in the education and general budget for FY17 total about $234.8 million.

One potential saving grace could come across Maine’s borders. While UMaine attracted 2 percent fewer students this school year than it did in 2014-15, it saw an uptick in the number of out-of-state students enrolled. Those students pay higher tuition than students from Maine.

The university has put a new focus on students from away in recent years because of the steady decline in the number of Maine high school graduates since 2008.

Over the past six years, the share of out-of-state students going to UMaine has climbed 11 percentage points, from 17 percent of the undergraduate student population in 2010 to 28 percent in 2015.

While the number of credit hours taken by in-state students has fallen from 92,627 in 2003 to 86,768 in 2015, the number of credit hours taken by out-of-staters has swelled from 18,252 to more than 35,000 during that same timeframe. The university typically considers credit hours rather than student headcount when building budgets because credit hours give a better indication of revenue, as students pay by tuition based on the credits they’re taking.

If the system’s projections for enrollment in the fall semester of 2016 pan out, the additional revenue could shrink the gap by up to $3 million. The system hopes to see an incoming class of about 2,150 in the fall of 2016, up about 100 from this year’s class size. If those projections don’t pan out, the budget gap could increase.

The university is short on information regarding how it will close whatever gap might remain. Hunter said officials would try to avoid changes that would affect students and academics.

“This is the first conversation that we’re having this year,” Hunter said during a Monday interview, before a campuswide meeting at Wells Commons about the early budget situation. “We’re looking to refine it, but we need to get out to the campus in order to build that budget.”

UMaine isn’t alone in its projected budget challenges for next year. The University of Southern Maine, for example, projects a $6 million gap. A year ago, USM grappled with a $16 million budget gap, resulting in the layoffs of more than 50 faculty and elimination of five programs.

The University of Maine System Chief Financial Officer Ryan Low said Monday that all seven UMS campuses are in a similar situation, with projected expenses exceeding revenues. That’s in spite of the fact that expenses have been reduced at five of the seven campuses, but several campuses are losing revenue at a faster rate.

The other universities are expected to launch their own campuswide discussions about budget challenges in coming weeks.

The University of Maine has less control over certain expense areas than in past years because of recent changes that brought more services under the authority of the system office. For example, the system now has oversight over information technologies, human resources, procurement and finance. UMaine still has budgetary control over academics, research, athletics and more.

“It has reduced our degree of freedom in terms of adjusting and making the changes we need to address the gap,” Hunter said.

The system plans to implement a unified budget in fiscal year 2018, part of Chancellor James Page’s One University changes aimed at making the system more financially sustainable, centralizing administrative services, reducing duplication, and focusing the individual campuses on their strongest programs.

“I think we’re starting to see some benefits from the reorganization,” Low said, adding that spending levels are lower systemwide than they were in 2009.

Those who want to air their concerns and comments regarding UMaine’s FY17 budget process at any point can do so by submitting a feedback form at www.umaine.edu/president.

UMaine officials will host another campuswide budget update on Jan. 20 when they will have a better picture of the financial situation and what might be done to balance the campus’ budget.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

 


Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of the projected budget gap. It is $7.2 million.


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