For the first time in 25 years, in-state tuition for undergraduate students at the University of Maine and throughout the University of Maine System will not see a year-over-year increase.
The decision, reached at a system board of trustees meeting on Jan. 23, came after a unanimous vote on a motion proposed by trustee Karl Turner. For now, tuition rates for out-of-state students have not been determined.
The decision comes after decades of tuition increases, with being 2008 and 2009 especially steep with nearly 10 percent hikes in tuition rates. Students who started in 2009 have seen their tuition increase more than $1,000 since then — a tough pill to swallow in a shaky economic climate.
“I think one of the very important things we can do is tightly control tuition and fees as much as possible,” Turner said.
According to a list of the board of trustees’ goals, controlling tuition and freezing it at its current rate is priority No. 1.
“I hope everyone agrees we have to do everything possible to make university education more affordable,” said USM Director of Public Affairs Bob Caswell. “This is a critically important step in helping to make sure undergraduate students enroll in USM and stay through graduation.”
But Caswell said the tuition freeze won’t be without its challenges. Without an increase university budgets will have to adjust to functioning without the extra income. “We along with every institution are currently evaluating the dollar impact of the freeze on our operating budgets,” he said. “We don’t have a total idea of the amount of impact, but suffice to say budgets are very tight.”
Gov. Paul LePage also welcomed the news.
“This is a real positive for the students in the University of Maine System and an example for others to follow,” LePage said in an statement to The Maine Campus. “Making education more affordable for students must be a priority and I applaud the forward thinking of the Board of Trustees on their decision.”
With this decision comes the question of how the freeze will be accomplished with tight budgets.
Keeping the budget in check will mean redistributing and reconsidering resources, according to University of Maine System spokeswoman Peggy Markson.
To do so, Markson said the strategic investment fund, a pool of revolving funds to support the development and implementation of major programs and innovation at member campuses, could be decreased. She said another possibility being considered is reorganizing the system office.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Markson said. “Everybody is working towards this.”
Turner said he proposed the tuition freeze with the hope of enabling as many Maine residents as possible to earn a college degree.
“It’s a challenge for higher education, whether it’s public or private,” he said. “You have to have it as affordable as you possibly can.”
For Turner, keeping tuition at a steady rate means not only keeping it affordable but keeping departments efficient as well.
“You force the system to think, ‘Is this cost really necessary?’” Turner said.
As the cost of higher education continues to rise throughout the country, Turner felt keeping tuition at a steady rate was important in maintaining faith in higher education.
“I think a lot of people are questioning the value of a college degree,” he said. “I think that’s a very shortsighted question. There is a direct correlation between a degree and quality of living.”
“When you analyze the drop-out rate at Maine and other institutions, the biggest single reason for dropping out is cost,” Turner said. “If you got into the school, then you’ve already proven you’re good enough to get the grades and do the work. The work isn’t the problem, it’s the cost.”
Freezing the rate of tuition wasn’t the only decision made at the meeting.
The board of trustees is also aiming to double the amount of the system’s information technology graduates within four years. In addition, all degrees will have a credit on hour cap and efforts will be made to help students transfer general education credits earned at community colleges to the system’s four-year universities.
There will also be extensive efforts made to outreach to businesses within the state. The goal is to increase the number of graduating students with jobs in the field of their choice.
“We want to be more efficient but we also want to be more relevant,” Markson said.