In the spring of 2022, 10% of the full-time faculty received pink slips at the University of Maine at Farmington. In December 2022, 49 tenured and tenure-track full-time faculty at New Jersey City University received similar notices.

These stories are alarming but not unique to New Jersey and Maine. The cuts represent an inflection point in U.S. public higher education: Our current moment is leaving citizens without sufficient access to higher education.

Educating citizens should be one of the primary goals of state leadership, and yet many new programs that are meant to increase access to higher education actually hamper it by undercutting the very institutions that serve the majority of our students.

Last year, Janet Mills, the governor of Maine, proclaimed that state residents who graduated from high school between 2020 and 2022 would be eligible for free tuition at any of the state’s community colleges. This program, which touts itself as “the best deal ever” was promoted as a progressive way to provide access to higher education to thousands of students, and, indeed, enrollment at community colleges surged by 12% this past fall.

In Maine, “the best deal ever” has driven students into the community colleges and lured them away from the University of Maine System. As a result, the University of Southern Maine, for example, saw a 6.5% decline in undergraduates last fall. Because tuition accounts for over 25% of all funding, that 6.5% decline represents a significant decrease in revenue.

Like Mills, New Jersey’s governor, Phil Murphy, signed legislation in June 2021 as a “commitment to make a college degree more accessible and affordable.” The Garden State Guarantee guarantees that students with families who have an adjusted gross income under $65,000 will pay nothing in tuition or fees for their third and fourth years at public four-year institutions in New Jersey. But existing federal and state aid already allowed the lowest-income students to pay little in tuition and fees for all four years of study at New Jersey’s lower-priced public institutions, like New Jersey City University.


Instead of increasing access, this program, like Maine’s, drives students from some institutions to others: In this case, from the lower-cost institutions serving New Jersey’s low-income students to the state’s more expensive institutions, which are already more resourced. These programs foster decreased enrollment and financial instability.

Educational leaders like David Daigler, president of the community college system in Maine, argue that competition among institutions of higher education is “healthy.” However, the loss of programs, faculty members and financial equilibrium diminishes access, particularly for first-generation, low-income college students. New Jersey’s expansion of the Garden State Guarantee and Daigler’s model of competition in Maine damage the higher education ecosystems already weakened by longstanding underfunding by states across the country.

Institutional cannibalism will not actually address the many decades of serious underfunding of public higher education. In the 1970s, states paid 65 percent of the costs of college; by 2013, that support declined to 30 percent of college costs. Today, it’s even less.

Ideally, public higher education would be free. But while free community college and college completion programs sound like they promote access, they actually undercut some institutions – and, as a result, the students – they purport to support. States need to view public higher education from a holistic vantage point and should respect the ways in which different kinds of public institutions fill the needs of different students. Instead of playing musical chairs with funding, let’s restore state funding to sustainable levels for all of our public institutions of higher learning. Only then will we produce real access and the educated citizenry that our country needs.

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