The Real Cost of Higher Education

You might not know it, but UMPI has put up a good fight for the past five years. The opponent UMPI has faced off with has cut revenue and forced the campus to adapt. UMPI has lost some good people, but those who remain haven’t given up.

Over the past five years UMPI students have enjoyed a flat tuition rate. While tuition is frozen, the campus still has to deal with inflation. And without control over tuition revenue UMPI has to master other avenues for income. Saving money on college is great for the student, but what does this cost the university?

“I don’t think the freeze has improved things on campus,” Chris Bell, campus operations officer, said.

The University of Maine System determines tuition rates and the decision to freeze was made by the UMS board of trustees.

“There was concern that cost was rising too quick for families to absorb,” Bell said.

The tuition freeze has saved students money, but has forced campuses to tighten their belts. When you hear “belt tightening,” that’s code for job loss.

“We’ve lost 47 positions because of the tuition freeze,” Linda Schott, UMPI president, said. “The rest of the staff has had to pick up the slack. People are getting really tired.”

UMPI began an early retirement incentive program fiscal year 2014-2015. Schott said that many of the people who took the buyouts have not been replaced.

“When you reduce your personnel cost that way, it’s not strategic,” Schott said. “They may be your most productive faculty members, but it’s a humane way of making reductions.”

Despite reductions, the remaining faculty and staff (most belonging to unions) have pay increases built into their contracts. Those increases are budgeted for each fiscal year. UMPI has had to focus on enrollment as its main source of revenue in order to make budget.

“The only way we can raise our revenue is by raising our enrollment,” Schott said.

UMPI’s acceptance rate is 82.8 percent, according to “U.S. News and World Report.” UMPI Provost Ray Rice said the number is now closer to 90 percent.

The high acceptance rate has lowered the threshold to attend UMPI. A lower threshold opens the doors to more students. But the broad range of students UMPI serves has a high dropout risk, according to Rice.

Getting students through the door is one thing, but keeping them is another. Strong student retention demands more campus resources.

Retention encompasses academic support and social integration for students. It also includes maintaining infrastructure for the campus and keeping up with technology.

A tight belt makes it almost impossible to reinvest in infrastructure. And Schott knows there are upgrades needed throughout the campus, specifically the residence halls, she pointed out.

Maine voters did approve bond money to be used to improve campus facilities in 2013. Schott said it was a nice shot in the arm from voters.

On top of a tuition freeze, the UMS has dealt with a decline in state appropriated funds. A drop in funds means less money for its campuses. State appropriation for fiscal year 2014 was $6.2 million below the fiscal year 2008 level.

“How do we balance all of these things and make sure the institution survives?” Schott said.

The silver lining during a revenue loss is hard to see. UMPI has remained proactive and focused its efforts on enrollment and retention. But optimism and morale can only take so much before faith in an institution runs dry. Schott feels a modest tuition increase is needed sometime soon.

Evidence from fall 2015 shows that enrollment is on the rise after a few year slump, according to Erin Benson, director of admissions. And UMPI is seeking more private donations and grant revenue.

“We’re getting to the point of sustainability,” Schott said.

A tuition freeze can save a student money, but how is a university supposed to support its students, if it can’t support itself? Going to college is an investment. But what’s the real price students pay when their tuition is too low to help the university remain viable?

Weakening a source of revenue to get more heads through the door is a short-term goal. But UMPI has focused on the long term, which is why over the past five years it’s bared its teeth to adversity. There’s no giving up on an institution that’s a jewel in the crown of Maine. This rock has opened its doors to more students since the freeze and isn’t the same. Now it has a thick skin, powerful reflexes and despite all odds, UMPI has leapt from its corner and kept on swinging.