There was a lot of talk about numbers at the University of Maine’s most recent faculty senate meeting. The conversation mostly addressed a need to increase the number of students as well as the student-to-faculty ratio at our university. However, the underlying message behind that discussion is that we’re trying to relieve some of the financial pressure on the system — a dauntingly complex calculus that can leave nobody entirely satisfied.
Chancellor James Page, who attended the meeting, suggested a few potential ways to boost enrollment. The name of the game seems to be outreach: to get more people on board with the college experience. This means opening up to greater numbers of transfer students, promoting the continued education of the 10-20 percent of our state’s population who have begun but not yet completed undergraduate degree programs, and continuing to entice freshly minted high school graduates with UMaine’s excellent academic and extracurricular programs.
Not only would these strategies generate some immediate revenue, they would provide long-term benefits for the university system as well. We’re a public university, dependent on the Maine legislature for funding. The entire state’s economy can only benefit from a more educated, knowledgeable and skilled population. This would constitute a positive feedback loop for both Maine’s and UMaine’s economies.
Another financial concern Chancellor Page raised is that funds allocated for administration expenses are $400 higher per student than the average among our peer universities. Not only does he propose to eliminate that discrepancy, he envisions decreasing those costs to a point at whichwe would be $400 below average costs — a net savings of $800 per student. This $800 savings, whether it would come so neatly packaged as a tuition decrease, would undoubtedly be a tremendous relief to students, not to mention that it would free up an estimated $20 million in the system budget — unarguably an attractive prospect.
A series of questions naturally arises: Where, in the administration, does Chancellor Page propose to find these savings? In the act of eliminating or consolidating positions? How many? Cutting or reducing benefits? By how much? Reducing travel expenses? How drastically? How might these various sources be prioritized? These details have not been unveiled. Painful choices are going to have to be made, and how they are made will directly affect how our education is delivered.
Furthermore, how does Chancellor Page envision using the $20 million in savings? For increased support for financial aid? Faculty salaries? Improvements to the grounds and physical plant? Elimination or reduction of some student fees? Reduced tuition? And, as with finding the savings, how will the expenditures be prioritized? We appreciate Chancellor Page’s evident concern about the long-term health of the university, and we eagerly await a more specific proposition.