Officials advise panel keeping college affordable

Higher education officials told a special legislative commission Thursday that a top priority for keeping college affordable for students was making sure the state didn’t cut the state appropriation for higher education and increasing the amount of financial aid available for students.

The Commission to Study College Affordability and College Completion is developing a strategic plan on increasing affordability and increasing the number of students staying in school through graduation. The report is due to the Legislature’s Education Committee by Dec. 3.

College affordability has emerged as a critical issue nationwide as tuition costs at state universities soared more than 200 percent in recent decades and student loan debt increased to more than $1 trillion.

For the last three years, tuition at University of Maine System schools has been frozen, and the state hasn’t cut the allocation. But university officials said that this year they plan to ask for more state funding, even though it remains a tough economic climate for the state.

“It’s going to be difficult,” said Ryan Low, interim vice president for administration and finance at UMaine in Orono.

If UMS does not get the additional state funding, the trustees might raise tuition, Low said.

In inflation-adjusted figures, Maine’s education appropriation per full-time equivalent student has dropped 15 percent over the last five years, from $7,027 to $5,978, according to a national survey and analysis by the State Higher Education Executive Officer Association.

The system trustees will discuss the details of the budget request at their meeting this Sunday and Monday in Fort Kent.

College persistence, which measures how many college freshmen return for a second year, and college completion are also being studied.

According to a study of Maine high school graduates who went on to attend Maine colleges, 83 percent of Maine students return for a second college year, compared to 75 percent nationwide, the Mitchell Institute survey found. The state’s graduation rate at public universities is 51 percent, compared to 55 percent nationwide; at Maine’s community colleges, the graduation rate is 25 percent, higher than the 21 percent graduation rate nationwide, the survey found.

The committee members asked education leaders Thursday to describe what they would prioritize if they had any additional state funding.

Bill Norbert of FAME, the Finance Authority of Maine, said they had a goal of increasing the Maine State Grant award, a needs-based grant, from its current average of $1,000 per student to $1,500. FAME also is exploring the creation of a new loan program targeting students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The Maine Community College System would hire additional counselors and increase work-study funding. The University of Maine System also would provide more aid, and work to preserve the existing state appropriation, Low said.

At Maine Maritime Academy, where students pay more tuition and tend to take out larger loans, the completion component is the priority, said Elizabeth True, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management. They would use additional funds to increase grants and hire an academic coach and someone to work with first-year students.

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