August 16, 2018
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For the future of Maine’s economy, now is the time to invest in our universities

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN
By James H. Page, Special to the BDN

In 2016, Gov. Paul LePage praised the University of Maine System for making public higher education in Maine “more affordable, aspirational and accessible.”

And he said that as state and university leaders “work toward transformational change in public higher education, we must also consider investments in the facilities, technology and infrastructure needed to sustain our campuses and extend the reach of services and programs into every Maine community.”

LePage was right.

Maine’s economic success depends upon a skilled workforce. From rural nursing homes and hospitals to Main Street banks and small businesses to high-tech global manufacturers, Maine employers say University of Maine System graduates are their top talent — they just need more of them. Yet, the current capacity and condition of our facilities is costing us students at the very time that Maine needs more graduates.

By 2025, Maine will need 158,000 additional workers with a postsecondary degree or credential. To meet this challenge, our campuses must be more competitive in recruiting and retaining Maine students and more attractive to those from out of state who want to study in Maine and often stay here after graduation to live, work and pay taxes. But meeting these outcomes requires modern facilities that foster the 21st century education and training students and employers expect. To make these infrastructure improvements while keeping tuition affordable for Maine families, public universities must have public investment.

That’s why we took the governor up on his good suggestion that we develop a strategic, data-driven capital investment plan that further advances higher education in Maine for inclusion in a bond package to go before Maine voters.

Today, our request for a $75 million university workforce development infrastructure bond is among the many proposals that has broad, bipartisan support but is awaiting legislative action in Augusta.

For less than the state now spends to build just one new high school, planned projects would modernize and expand classrooms and labs at university campuses so we can produce more job-ready graduates in the occupations where Maine most needs workers, including nursing, engineering, education and other high-growth STEM professions.

Case in point: It’s no secret that Maine is getting older and that more and more people will need skilled nursing. Already, we have received more than 2,400 applications — a record — from prospective nursing students hoping to start their studies this fall. Even as workforce projections show a statewide shortage of 3,200 nurses within a decade, facilities constraints mean many of those applicants will be turned away. Were our bond to be authorized, we could expand nursing education labs and enrollment at our campuses, including in Aroostook and Washington counties as well as in southern Maine.

Our public universities have a total statewide annual economic impact of $1.5 billion — a $7.50 return for every dollar of state appropriation. For the long term, Maine needs a predictable process for prioritizing and paying for investments in the infrastructure of these important institutions, as is already in place for public K-12 schools, courts and correctional facilities. In the meantime, we must have the chance to make our case to Maine voters.

Thanks to hard work done by the university system to get our fiscal house in order — including realizing $82 million in annual savings — we can commit to matching bond monies with private and other public funds, making this an historic investment in Maine’s future that will bring more students, jobs, investments and opportunities to our campuses and communities — including local construction jobs.

On behalf of nearly 30,000 students, thousands of Maine employers and hundreds of communities across the state who depend on the programs and services our campuses provide, it is our hope the Legislature will reconvene this month to complete its unfinished business, including sending an infrastructure bond package to voters that the state badly needs and has a bright revenue outlook to support.

Just like roads and bridges, Maine’s public universities are critical public infrastructure essential to the state’s economic prosperity. To ensure Maine’s workforce is prepared for the future, the time to invest is now.

James H. Page, a Caribou native and former business owner, is the chancellor of the University of Maine System.

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