The University of Southern Maine and Maine Maritime Academy are among the nation’s most expensive public, four-year public universities for in-state students, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Education.

That means that in a state where the median income is $50,121 – 38th in the country, according to the U.S. Census – the net cost of going to college at two of its public universities is among the highest in the country.

The list ranks institutions in several categories by their net cost, the actual amount students would pay after accounting for grants and scholarships, based on data from the 2011-2012 academic year. The University of Southern Maine ranked 23rd on the list, with a net price of $18,177. Maine Maritime Academy ranked 28th, with a net price of $17,726. Both are above the national average at $11,582. At the top of the list was Miami University of Ohio, with a net price of $24,674 for in-state students.

The statewide average for Maine public, four-year institutions was slightly higher than the national average, at $12,787.

Officials from USM and Maine Maritime Academy acknowledged that their high cost was not likely to comfort students or parents, but pointed to efforts they were making to control student costs.

“I want every Maine child who wants an education here to get one, and to be able to help them to do that,” said William J. Brennan, president of Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, which trains students to become a part of the merchant marine, the Coast Guard, the Navy or other civilian professions. Brennan said he’s hoping to increase the school’s estimated $19 million endowment, and reduce the costs of attendance. “We work hard at keeping our costs low because we want students to be able to come here.”

Judie O’Malley, a spokeswoman for the University of Southern Maine, said USM is also making efforts to keep costs down for students.

“We recognized that our net costs were high,” O’Malley said. She pointed to a systemwide tuition freeze for in-state students, and a $4 million increase in financial aid at USM over four years. The average costs for room and board for the upcoming year will be $10,006, nearly $1,000 less than they were in 2011, she said.

O’Malley added that some of the data the school submitted for the annual ranking, such as the average number of credit hours and costs of room and board, were incorrect, but could not immediately say how large the discrepancy was, although the university’s costs for room and board for 2010-11, the previous academic year, were actually higher than for the 2011-12 year. O’Malley said the university submitted the data in September 2011, and discovered the error in March 2012, after the federal department’s deadline to make changes.

The ranking is part of an annual update to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency List, which was authorized by the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008.

The net cost was calculated by adding the total cost of attendance, minus the average amount of federal, state, local government grant or scholarship aid. The total cost of attendance includes each school’s tuition and required fees, books and supplies, and the weighted average for room and board, and other expenses.

The room and board expenses are calculated for students living on-campus, off-campus, or off-campus with family. Other expenses could include laundry, transportation, or entertainment costs, according to the DOE.

In Maine, the net costs varied widely, even within the campuses in the UMaine system. UMaine’s flagship campus in Orono had a net cost of $15,299, still above the national average but lower than USM, despite the fact that tuition and fees at UMaine were higher. Tuition

Richard Vedder, director for the Center for College Affordability in Washington D.C., said that the difference in net costs between USM and UMaine were “somewhat unusual.”

“It’s a bit of an anomaly,” he said. “As a general rule, the main campuses at universities are usually the same price or a good deal more than the branch campuses.”

One explanation for the difference could be the higher amount of grants and scholarships given to students at UMaine, Vedder said. The cost of room and board at USM was also higher than at UMaine, likely because of USM’s location in Portland, which has among the highest housing prices in the state.

Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, a publication that covers higher education issues, cautioned that while it’s important for families to scrutinize the price tag that students will actually pay to attend a particular college, it’s also important to look at the bigger picture. “Context matters a lot,” he said. “Tuition is important, but it’s just one of a number of factors.”

Public universities often provide more aid to low-income students, or admit more students who are eligible for Pell Grants than other institutions, which could still make them more attractive for some students, he said. In the Northeast, he added, public universities tend to cost more than schools in other parts of the country because there are so many strong, more expensive private colleges in the region, and there’s a greater tolerance for higher costs.

While supporters of the annual list say they hope that higher rankings might make more colleges keep tuition rates down, college officials have said that looking at just the costs does not paint a full picture.

A spokeswoman for Miami University in Ohio, the university with the highest net cost, attributed the school’s ranking to a loss in state funding, a factor that many public institutions are facing.

“It’s a telling sign that the states that are not able to spend as much as others are the ones on this list,” she told Inside Higher Ed. “I worry that somebody might stop at just that statistic, but we’re trying to get the word out about outcomes, which is what we find that parents and families want to know: what are my odds of being employed or getting into graduate school.”

Brennan echoed that assessment, saying that specialized institutions like Maine Maritime Academy often show up high on such lists because of the higher costs that go along with specialized training, but those costs pay off when the students enter the job market.

Much of the training for students at the school is aimed at earning credentials to enter the Coast Guard, which require expensive equipment and technology. For instance, students use simulation technologies to train on specialized tasks, such as driving a super tanker into a port. Students are also required to be in school two months longer than most universities. “Unfortunately those things do have costs,” he said.

He said Maine Maritime places over 90 percent of its students in their chosen career field within three months, many of them in jobs with six-figure salaries.

“Even though families see the debt load, they also see the value added of the education that makes it worth the expense,” he said, adding that many Maine Maritime students repay their loans within six years.

“That’s really a testament to the value of the education,” he said. “Our graduates are going out and making money, paying off their debt.”

The rankings come at a time when the entire UMaine system is already grappling with budget cuts that officials blame on flat state funding, declining enrollment and tuition freezes. Earlier this year, trustees for the system approved a $529 million budget for 2014-15 that includes $11.4 million from emergency reserves and the elimination of about 157 positions. The deep cuts and reserve funds closed a $36 million deficit.

USM students said that their school’s comparatively high costs underscore the need to increase state funding.

“Affordability is part of education being a human right and something everyone should have access to,” said Meaghan LaSala, a rising senior at USM. LaSala, who is from Portland, is involved with Students for a USM Future, a group that organized in response to the budget cuts. “I don’t think that the students should be bearing the costs of running the university. I think it’s really important that the legislature take that issue seriously and reinvest in our state by reinvesting in higher education,”

Jaschik said much of the net price is determined by how much funding a school gets from the state. If state funding is cut, any institution can respond in a variety of ways, charging more to avoid cuts, or charging less and making cuts.

“It’s not always clear to me that charging less helps as many people,” he said. For instance, if a university cuts sections of a class because of budget constraints, and students can’t get into classes, that means they can’t graduate in four years.

“In those cases,” he asked, “who has saved money?”


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