In the latest meeting of the University of Maine System (UMS) Board of Trustees held on Jan. 29, concerns were brought over the budget shortfalls that have plagued the university since the pandemic. The continued budget woes have resulted in some students being concerned about another potential rise in tuition ahead of the upcoming fiscal year.
Concerns that UMS may raise tuition are well-founded, as this would only be an additional escalation in a worrying trend over the past several years. Tuition for in-state students was raised in the last fiscal year by 3% across the university system, along with room-and-board, student fees and out-of-state rates at variable and dependent rates on campus. Tuition had been raised by 2.5% two years before in 2021, meaning that tuition has been raised by 5.5% since the outset of the decade and looks set to continue to rise until at least 2028 when internal administrative estimates believe the enrollment crisis will alleviate. While UMS claims that the actions taken to raise tuition are only taken as a last resort, this is hard to believe, given their willingness to do so in the past.
Maine already has the lowest bachelor’s degree attainment rate in the Northeast, being several percentage points beneath any other state in New England or the Mid-Atlantic. Additionally, Maine is the most rural state in the Northeast and has the lowest average household income, both of which are socioeconomic markers correlated with lower college enrollment for in-state students. The reliance of UMS on raising tuition as a method of solving budget shortfalls will only continue to heighten the barriers to low-income students.
UMS’s budget problems are also, to some extent, self-perpetuating. Chancellor Dannel Malloy and other university figureheads have pointed to the Maine Free College Scholarship, which enables recently graduated students to pursue two years of tuition-free community college, as a major factor for decreased enrollment in the UMS. However, if tuition is raised at UMaine and its partner universities, then those students who were already considering community college will only be pushed further in that direction, exacerbating the persistent enrollment crisis.
Beyond the obvious pitfalls that come with increasing the cost of attendance for students, our tuition has also been misused by the UMS administration for political purposes. As noted in a piece by Opinion contributor Meredyth Waters, the UMS has, since 2016, kept on its payroll a lobbyist who has consistently rallied legislators to oppose student priorities, including protections for student employees of the university. If students pay tens of thousands of dollars annually to attend the university, there is no reason for the administration to utilize our tuition in a manner that is not conducive to an improved student experience. If they intend to justify another tuition increase, UMS representatives should fight for better protections for student workers attempting to earn back some of the exorbitant amounts they are paying the university.
Finally, the efforts by the Biden Administration to reduce the student loan burden at federally-funded public universities have been frustrated by conservative elements in the judicial system, with the Supreme Court ruling that the Biden Administration lacked the legal basis to cancel loan debt. Further, they ruled that those debt-bearing students who brought the case lacked standing to do so. As political efforts to forgive student loan debt lie dead in the water, student debt holders lack any obvious relief on the horizon. In line with the other New England states, UMaine has some of the highest net costs for any state public flagships. It would be insensitive and callous for the university to continue to raise the cost of attendance with these factors in mind.
The budget woes that have affected UMS are manifold and complex, between UMaine Orono’s continued enrollment struggles and the striking collapse of UMaine Farmington’s marquee liberal arts programs, but raising the already-steep tuition is not the answer to them.