AUGUSTA — Increases in college costs continue to outpace inflation and stagnant incomes — in Maine and around the country.

The College Board’s annual college pricing survey shows that in-state tuition and fees for four-year public universities rose an average of 8.3 percent nationwide from last year. Two-year public colleges rose 8.7 percent.

The increases in Maine were 4.5 percent for four-year public universities and 2 percent for community colleges, according to the College Board’s data.

Another report, by the Compact for Higher Education, showed that — even though the cost of college in Maine is below the New England average, and is rising more slowly — college affordability still is “moving in the wrong direction” in Maine.

The Compact study said the average price increase for tuition and fees was 42 percent for all types of institutions in Maine between 1999 and 2010. In New England at large, the increase was 68 percent.

A 42 percent increase over a decade is still too high, said Henry Bourgeois, executive director of the Compact.

“It’s kind of a vicious circle,” he said. “Costs go up, resources to help students go down, kids have to work more to earn money to go to school. They wind up, in many cases, borrowing quite a bit of money.

“The consequence of that, we think, is that fewer kids go to school because they take a look at what they think might be their indebtedness and they shirk away, and they don’t even try,” he added. “The perception is reality in terms of how costly schools are.”

The Compact is a business-led nonprofit organization that wants to raise the proportion of Maine adults with a postsecondary education credential to 56 percent by 2020.

The New England average is 47 percent, and Maine is at 39 percent, the lowest in the region. Maine also has the lowest per-capita income in the region.

Studies have consistently shown a postsecondary degree or certificate raises an individual’s lifetime earnings.

Because Mainers have lower incomes, students must close the gap with more loans.

Maine students borrowed an average of $4,440 per year of college in 2008 — $128 higher than the New England average, and a 39 percent increase over 2001 borrowing.

The Compact’s analysis does not address the question of whether Maine’s educational systems are too expensive, Bourgeois said.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center suggests rising tuition is at least partly due to increases in personnel expenses in the University of Maine System.

“When it’s taken in the broader context of the fairly substantial tuition increases that have been passed along, it presents a core question that the university system and Maine taxpayers need to ask,” Maine Heritage Policy Center director Lance Dutson said. “Do we need to give more access for students to go to college? Or do we need to make sure that we pay our faculty more competitive wages?

“It’s a very complex question, and I think we need to dig deeper to answer those questions.”

Maine Heritage Policy Center recently released data showing the system spent 17 percent more on salaries in 2010 than in 2003.

Those raises, plus a 71 percent increase in the cost of benefits, led to a 29 percent increase in overall employee compensation over the period, an average of 4.1 percent per year.

At a time when U.S. government data say inflation in the Northeast was 21 percent from 2003 to 2010, the weighted average cost of education — in-state tuition, fees and room and board — rose 56 percent in the University of Maine System, from $10,996 in 2003-04 to $17,172 in 2010-11.

System officials say Maine Heritage Policy Center is presenting the information without context, and that the time frame selected obscures proactive measures taken to curb expenses and tuition hikes since the recession began.

“In the last few years, the picture has changed very dramatically,” said Rebecca Wyke, vice chancellor for finance and administration.

The university system has slowed the rate of increase in the cost of education from a high of 8.3 percent three years ago to 3.3 percent this year.

“There’s a conscious effort not to pass that along to families, but to reduce expenses,” Wyke said.

System expenditures have remained stable during the past three fiscal years, she said, and employees did not receive cost-of-living increases this year or last.

Between 2007 and 2010, the university system reduced its work force by about 7 percent — the equivalent of 397 full-time employees.

And a 2009 report by the university system’s Office of Human Resources found that average faculty salaries were lower than the national median at every campus but the University of Southern Maine. Average pay for all management groups and almost all groups of other employees also fell below national medians.

Wyke said the university system feels tension between the market in which it recruits faculty — which is national and international — and the student market it serves in a state with relatively low incomes.

With the system’s spending holding steady in recent years, reductions in state funding are what’s driving tuition increases, Wyke said.

Between 2003 and 2010, state appropriations declined from 31 percent of the system’s income to 27 percent, while net student tuition and fees rose from 27 percent to 33 percent.

Educational sales and services also brought in less money, down from 11 percent to 8 percent, as fewer traditional students rented dormitory rooms and bought campus meal plans; and all students bought fewer textbooks in school bookstores, heading online instead.

The system will continue to lose traditional students — who enroll full-time right after high school — as Maine’s population ages.

In addition to the squeeze on state appropriations, those demographic changes will force a new approach to the whole educational model, Wyke said.

That will involve more workforce alignment, serving more adult students and investing in new programs such as the Innovation Engineering minor that trains students to “create, communicate and commercialize” ideas, Wyke said.

More students also are looking beyond the four-year university model.

While the University of Maine System’s enrollment last fall was its lowest since at least 2003, the Maine Community College System has hit a new high each fall since 2002 and now has 18,546 students, taking courseloads equivalent to 11,554 full-time students.

The system’s average cost for tuition and fees increased 2 percent this year and 14 percent in the last five years. Tuition has been frozen eight of the last 13 years, System President John Fitzsimmons said.

“I don’t think there’s another college system in the nation that can match that,” he said.

Maine’s community colleges are the least expensive in New England and have had the smallest increase in tuition and fees since 2006, according to a recent report from the New England Board of Higher Education.

Maine Heritage Policy Center also released personnel expenses for the community college system, showing that overall compensation rose 8.8 percent between 2006 and 2010, an average of 2.2 percent per year.

Fitzsimmons said the system has managed to keep costs down by hiring more adjunct instructors who teach part time and by expanding low-cost programs such as business and general studies to support equipment-intensive occupational programs.

The colleges and students both benefit from a two-way exchange between tuitions and enrollments.

“If you continue to grow, as we have, you are bringing in some tuition that helps support the college through these lean times,” Fitzsimmons said. “If we hadn’t been growing, we would have had tremendous financial challenges in our system.”

Seventy-seven percent of Maine community college students receive financial aid, and an analysis the system commissioned showed that a tuition increase of even $5 per credit hour could reduce enrollment by as much as 20 percent, Fitzsimmons said.

“We’re very cognizant of the fact that price matters,” he said. “You must have an affordable entry point for people to come in and get a degree and, if they wish, transfer to a four-year university.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]

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