BANGOR, Maine — The University of Maine System will continue an unusual, if not unique, trend among U.S. public higher education systems by keeping in-state tuition flat for the sixth straight year.
The system’s board of trustees approved the freeze Monday morning, during the second day of a two-day meeting at the University of Maine at Farmington.
Maine is the only state in the nation to see a reduction in inflation-adjusted tuition during the past five years, according to a recent College Board survey. In-state tuition varies from a high of $8,370 at the University of Maine in Orono to $6,510 at the University of Maine at Augusta.
On average, the cost of public higher education has increased 13 percent in that time, including a staggering 52 percent increase in Louisiana, the College Board found. Maine’s costs have decreased by 2 percent.
The decision comes in spite of continued budget struggles for the system, which predicted earlier this year a $20 million budget gap across its seven campuses for the 2016-17 fiscal year. Campus officials have been grappling to rein in costs and drive in new revenue in an effort to close that gap. System officials were preparing to propose a 2.3 percent in-state tuition hike to bring in about $4.5 million in revenue.
Gov. Paul LePage has told trustees he would propose a supplemental budget in January, including about $7.5 million more in funding for the system, if the university system agreed to stall the tuition hike. LePage proposed $4.65 million in supplemental funding for the 2016-17 academic year. That is enough money to offset what the system would have made from its tuition increase. That funding also would set a new baseline for the system’s state appropriation and would carry over into future years. In addition, the governor offered $2.8 million earmarked for early college programs, a pre-law undergraduate program and an adult education scholarship.
“I commend the board of trustees for their vote to hold off a tuition increase for another year,” LePage said in a written statement Monday morning. “We are committed to ensuring that higher education in Maine is affordable and accessible. Today’s vote means that students at the University of Maine schools will have lower student loan payments when they graduate, providing them more opportunity with less debt to build a future in Maine.”
The trustees voiced appreciation for LePage’s support.
“We are achieving savings and extending access to high quality programming as part of our One University reforms,” said Samuel Collins, chairman of the board of trustees. “We appreciate [Gov.] LePage’s support of our efforts and for sharing the board’s view that affordable access to public higher education is essential to Maine’s future.”
UMS could still decide to increase tuition for out-of-state students, but hikes have been rare for them as well. The flagship in Orono is the only campus to increase its undergraduate out-of-state tuition since 2012. Tuition has increased from $24,090 to $26,640, or about 1.5 percent, during that period. Tuition for Canadian and New England students has stayed flat across all seven campuses. Rates for those groups have remained steady at $12,570 at UMaine since 2012, for example.
Universities also could decide to boost revenues through mandatory fees or room and board charges. Mandatory fees, which cover things such as student health services and activities, range from $700 to $2,240 depending on the campus, and have been left mostly unchanged since 2012. Total yearly room and board across all campuses has gone up an average of $235, or 2.6 percent, since 2012.
Trustees will consider the final version of the fiscal year 2017 budget during their meeting in May.
Also on Monday, trustees approved a new endowed professorship honoring the University of Maine’s best-known graduate — horror novelist Stephen King. The new chair was paid for through a $1 million endowment from the Harold Alfond Foundation.
BDN writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.