The Smart Money: The higher education of the state of Maine

Posted Wednesday, February 20, 2013 in Analysis

The Smart Money: The higher education of the state of Maine

The Mall at the University of Maine

by Gina Hamilton

In Gov. Paul LePage's budget, there have been some changes that affect higher education as well.  Some of them are innovative, and may significantly increase the number of high school students who go on to a two- or four-year degree.

LePage suggests that high schools provide an extra year of school, where a student can graduate, not only with a high school diploma, but also with an Associates' degree, making him or her eligible to go right into the university system with coursework that will transfer without difficulty.  This is an innovative approach, if it can be done without sacrificing the needs of the general high school population financially, because the biggest problem in getting students into the university system ... and keeping them there ... is money.  Shaving two years of tuition off the top, and graduating students at age 21 rather than 22, would cut down the amount of financial risk these students would have to take on to complete their education, and keep more kids in Maine.

This is important to the health of the state in general, because many students go off to college in other states, and never return.  The reason is clear when one considers the cost of a state education in other states, versus in Maine.

For instance, an in-state tuition for the California State University system, annually, for a full-time student, is $5,472.  There are a few other student fees, and housing, books, and tranportation costs, but typically, a California student can get a very good education at the state university system, along with room and board, for about $11,000 per year.  Even out of state students would pay only about $250 extra per credit unit per year.

Maine's tuition at Orono isn't that much higher ... it's $5,600 for the year for a full load.  However, other costs are much higher, and state grant support for students is lower.  And because most students are obligated to live on or near campus for logistical reasons -- Orono may be "centrally located" to the state, but it is not centrally located to where most students live -- room and board must be taken into account.  A year's tuition, student fees, and room and board at Orono is close to $16,000. 

A student who lives in or near one of Cal State's university towns (there are 23 of them, most in populous areas, as well as the University of California campuses) and commutes to school pays just $5,472 ... and is often given a state scholarship to meet those costs.  The result is that fewer students take out risky student loans in California, most hold jobs throughout school, and the four-year graduation rate is significantly higher than in Maine  -- an average of 52 percent in California State Universities, compared to 36 percent in Maine.

California also has community colleges in nearly every community of any size, where students can prepare for university life for two years.  The courses are designed to apply to Cal State's requirements, so no coursework is lost in the transition. The community college costs are much less than the costs of Maine's community colleges.  For instance, City College of San Francisco charges $46 per credit unit, and there are no additional fees.  A student carrying a load of 12 units would pay just $552 for a semester of classes, even if he or she did not qualify for financial aid, and most do.  Compare that to Maine community college costs, $86 per credit unit, almost double what a similar courseload would cost in California.

What is Maine doing so differently that Maine students too often weigh the cost-benefit analysis and attend school out of state?

U-Maine's financial aid packages are comparatively low, and lower in many cases than private universities would be for the most highly qualified students.  That is, a student who wanted to stay in Maine and go to his or her state university may not be able to afford it if Harvard or Columbia offered a better package.  So Maine is not attracting the most highly qualified students, who are often given a better deal elsewhere.

Maine also doesn't offer graduate coursework that many students are looking for.  The state university does not have a dental college, for instance.  It doesn't have an accredited medical school of its own -- the University of Maine's medical program is run by Tufts University. Orono threatened to do away with its school of public administration two years ago, before the Muskie School was fully accredited.  In the end, it did not, but if it had, Maine would have been the only state in the country without this vital program.  As it is, students have to shuttle back and forth between Orono and Augusta for needed classes.

A lot of University of Maine's resources are used in research and development.  While that is not uncommon, most programs in other states are not funded by bond measures or taxpayers, but by the industries themselves, or by dedicated grants.  A philanthropist who wants to donate money to the University no doubt wants it to go to fun pet projects, such as a new stadium or exercise facility.  But someone at the University should be sitting down with the philanthropist to explain where the money is really needed ... offsetting student tuition, building more and less expensive student housing solutions, etc., even if it means that the philanthropist has to think about writing the check for an extra few days.

The biggest obstacle to keeping students in Maine is the cost.  In a state where the median family income is $47,000, most families simply cannot dedicate a third of their pretax income to a single child's education.  To counter the teenage brain drain, Maine must provide more and better financial aid packages to its brightest students, try the Associates' degree program at the high schools, and provide more options to allow students to study closer to home.

However, that's only half the equation.  The other half lies in the work that must be done to make sure the students remain here after graduation ... and that means business must get involved.

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