Fri, Aug 01, 2014 ●
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Short Relief: Maine must consolidate college spending

Opinion

Short Relief: Maine must consolidate college spending

The University of Maine System is in the midst of cutting $36 million from its budget. The shortfall is the result of the state having flat-funded the system for the last three years, the system’s trustees freezing in-state tuition, declining enrollment (down 8.9 percent, from nearly 31,000 in the spring of 2010 to 28,000 in 2014), and increased compensation for faculty and staff.

At the University of Southern Maine, the administration proposed cutting four academic programs and 50 faculty members in order to save its share, $14 million. Management said that it was being responsible. Students and faculty protested that management’s numbers were questionable and its priorities misplaced.

Meanwhile, we are at the peak of the college admissions cycle. High school seniors and their families are waiting to hear whether they will have the privilege of spending about $200,000 over four years for a degree from a private school.

Parents would have to save more than $11,000 a year per child, starting at birth, in order to be able to pay as they go. That’s a lot of money for most people. (Maine’s five-year median household income is about $48,000; the national median is $53,000.)

The alternatives include invading savings if they are available, getting help from relatives if that’s possible, or taking out a loan: 60 percent of the 20 million Americans who attend college borrow to cover the cost.

While a public school education costs less, it still costs a lot. Tuition and fees for out-of-state students at the University of Maine System is $40,000. In-state tuition is about $23,000.

In 1976, a year’s worth of tuition, room and board at a private school cost about $5,000. Today, it costs about 10 times as much. Over the same time period, the Consumer Price Index rose by a factor of 4.12.

There are a variety of explanations for the higher price of higher education. More people are going to more schools because of the belief that everyone should go to college. Schools are spending more on facilities and faculty salaries, and they are offering more amenities.

Congress has provided a lot of cheap money in the form of grants and low-interest loans: about $143 billion in 2013. The eligibility requirements are minimal: citizenship, need, a high school degree or the equivalent, and satisfactory academic progress as determined by the school of attendance. All that money has an inflationary effect.

But it doesn’t seem to be producing graduates who are able to find jobs. That leaves many in debt, without the means to pay off their loans. There are about 37 million borrowers with outstanding student loans. The average balance on those loans is more than $24,000. The total outstanding student loan debt is around $1 trillion.

I am a big believer in the value of education. Not just education for practical purposes, like getting a job and earning a living. But also, education for the purpose of learning to appreciate life. And, education for knowledge’s own sake.

But we have got to get these costs under control.

Society should provide a good, basic education for all children. By basic, I mean something like the common core curriculum developed by our nation’s governors and education commissioners. Beyond that, government support of higher education should be conditioned on some measure of student commitment and merit. It should be efficient.

In Maine, it is not.

We are a state of 1.3 million people. About 120,000 of those are college age, 18 to 24 years old, and we are projected to lose many of them over the next few years. Our gross domestic product is about $56.3 billion. Our proposed 2014-2015 biannual state budget is $6.3 billion. Around 40 percent of it comes from the federal government.

We have eight state universities that employ 1,200 full-time faculty members. The system spent $528 million in fiscal year 2013, of which $178 million, or 34 percent, came from the state, and $274 million came from student tuition and fees. (That does not include Maine Maritime Academy, to which the state contributed $8.6 million.)

Consider one of those eight: the University of Maine at Augusta. It offers 19 baccalaureate degree programs, 13 associate degree programs, and numerous certificates and minors. It has main campuses in Augusta and Bangor, nine University College Centers, and 56 smaller sites. Farmington offers four degrees in 38 programs. The flagship at Orono boasts nearly 100 majors, minors and programs. USM offers 101 degrees and certificates.

In addition, we have a community college system that operates seven campuses and eight off-campus centers. It employs 1,000 adjunct professors to teach 18,500 students. The state contributed $54 million to the cost of operating that system.

We are a relatively small, relatively poor state. We need to consolidate some of our schools.