PORTLAND (AP) – A college education at the University of Maine’s seven campuses would cost an average of 7 percent more under a proposed budget that will be voted on in early June.

The increases would be the largest since the state’s fiscal crisis in the early 1990s. University of Maine System Chancellor Joseph Westphal called the hikes unfortunate but necessary because of a severe shortfall between state funding and what the system needs simply to keep the status quo.

If the proposal is adopted, the average price tag for tuition and fees for a full-time, in-state student would rise from $4,777 to $5,115. Even with the increase, the system’s flagship campus in Orono, with tuition and fees of $5,914, would still have the lowest tuition among New England’s land-grant universities.

James Mullen, chairman of the system’s board of trustees, said the increase is regrettable but unavoidable. Trustees will vote on a proposed $406 million budget on June 2.

“We’ve really tried to keep tuition increases over the years as low as we can and really provide a quality education. This year it just boils down to plain math,” he said.

In March, state lawmakers approved a $5.3 billion, two-year budget beginning July 1 that provides the same amount of money for higher education that was appropriated in this year’s budget. In the university system’s case, that amounted to more than $176 million.

But like other state institutions, the university system had already undergone a series of cuts because of a shortfall in the current state budget. The system also experienced a $14 million increase in employee health care premiums this year and is expecting a $10 million increase next budget year.

Mullen warned in March that a tuition increase was likely, and the specific amount of the proposed increase was released Friday by Westphal.

Westphal said the system is also taking other steps to cut costs.

They include a hiring freeze for all but the most essential positions; selected program cuts; consolidating and centralizing campus-based administrative functions and using new technology to reduce administrative paperwork; refinancing long-term debt with lower fixed rates; and negotiating an increase in employees’ share of health care costs.

Nonvoting student representatives on the system’s board of trustees said a tuition hike would be a hardship for many, but agreed that it would be preferable to cuts that would dilute the quality of their education.

Ben Meiklejohn of Portland, who attends the University of Southern Maine, said students he spoke with this spring said they would prefer slight tuition increases to cuts in programs, courses and faculty.

But, he added, “If it becomes a pattern year after year, I think we’ll see more discontent with tuition raises.”

AP-ES-05-24-03 1109EDT



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