UMaine system schools close $5 million budget gap – Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel | Team Cansler

The University of Maine system board of trustees voted Monday to use reserves, federal COVID-19 relief funds and hiring freezes to close a $5 million budget deficit caused by lower-than-expected dormitory enrollment and occupancy in schools across the system.

Board and system leaders said the deficit came as no surprise and based on current trends, they expect financial challenges to persist for years to come.

“Generally ours Board is concerned about the budget and finance sufficiently our public universities,” said UMaine Board of Trustees Chair Trish Riley. “But we We work hard to do everything we can to ensure Maine students have access to quality and affordable public education.”

The system started the fiscal year with a budget of $616.7 million and until the board filled some gaps today, every campus except law school faced a deficit.

The board approved updated budgets with cost-cutting measures at four UMaine schools: Augusta, Fort Kent and Presque Isle, and the University of Southern Maine. Budgets at the other schools in the system are to be discussed at future meetings.

Total enrollments across the system’s seven schools fell 4.6 percent from last fall. State enrollment fell 5.9 percent. As of Sunday, 24,617 students were enrolled, including 17,193 state students. Last year, at this point, there were 25,792 students enrolled, including 18,278 domestic students.

“This is still a worrying trend,” Robert Placido, vice chancellor for academic affairs, said of the state’s enrollment decline. “After all, we are public bodies and our primary mission is to serve the citizens of the state.”

The expected enrollment for the spring semester indicates that the financial situation of the system will not change in the foreseeable future. Enrollment for the spring semester is 15 percent lower this year than last year. As of Sunday, 10,656 students were enrolled in the system. At this point in time last year, 12,601 students were enrolled. The registration period remains open until February 15th.

The decline in enrollment is a multi-year trend, with student enrollments falling each year for at least five years. Overall, there are almost 2,000 fewer students than in 2018, a 7 percent decrease.

The largest enrollment declines between Fall 2021 and Fall 2022 are in Fort Kent and Presque Isle.

Two bright spots, however, are that Canadian and law student enrollment has increased.

Since 2018, the number of Canadian students enrolled in the UMaine system has nearly doubled, from 95 students in November 2018 to 186 students this year. The UMaine system has been offering state tuition to Canadian students for attendance at the Fort Kent and Presque Isle campuses since 2021. Law school enrollments have also increased in recent years.

The UMaine system’s declining enrollment and resulting financial woes reflect a nationwide trend in which college-age students are afraid of going into debt and uncertain about how much a college education will benefit them in the long term will forego higher education in exchange for earning a paycheck in a strong job market, leaving colleges and universities with fewer students and lower earnings.

Only elite schools across the country seem to escape this fate. Maine colleges like Bates, Bowdoin, and Colby received more applications than ever before and boasted historically low acceptance rates in the final fall application cycle.

But public two- and four-year institutions across the country are taking a hit.

Between fall 2019 and 2021, 24 states saw at least a 4% decrease in enrollment at public universities, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

An exception are the community colleges in Maine. Maine’s community colleges saw a significant increase in enrollment this fall as part of an initiative by Gov. Janet Mills to make the state’s community colleges free for young high school graduates.

Because college enrollment and occupancy numbers often don’t exactly match forecasts, it’s common to change budgets mid-fiscal, said Ryan Low, UMaine’s vice chancellor of finance and administration. “We’re doing enrollment forecasts for next fall, and if we get that right I’m going to buy everyone a beer,” he said.

Though Low said it’s not uncommon for the system to face a budget deficit, trustee Roger Katz said after this year the federal COVID-relief funds are gone, reserves are being spent, energy costs are rising, the number of kids in college -Aging in Maine is declining and an unknown future of government funds, the system looks set for a challenging financial future.

“We’re going to have a very difficult budget talk going into 2024,” Katz said. “It will involve tough discussions to figure out how we will have a sustainable financial model for the future.”

Riley, the board chairman, echoed Katz’s opinion in an interview after the board meeting, but said the board is working hard to create a financially stable and sustainable school system by creating and expanding programs that increase enrollment and do well paid jobs lead the state of Maine and by working with the state to determine appropriate resources.

One way to increase revenue would be to increase tuition, but Riley said she hopes it won’t come to that. The state has held state tuition fees for seven of the last 10 years, ranging from about $7,000 to $12,000 depending on the institution. Riley said the board is keeping in mind what families in Maine can afford and will only attempt tuition increases as a last resort.

“We don’t want to make registration any more difficult,” she said. “But we need revenue to keep the system available to everyone.”

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