University of Maine junior Cameron Lawrence of Bucksport, center, gives a tour of the Orono campus to a group of students from Portland High School on Tuesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

An almost total hiring freeze, spending reductions, and limited travel. The University of Southern Maine is tightening its belt.

The university has a bright future, USM President Jacqueline Edmondson wrote in a letter to the school community earlier this month. But it’s also facing challenges, she said.

“We must come together to create a fiscally responsible budget,” she said. “We need to remain affordable to students and operate within our means.”

The USM president’s letter comes against the backdrop of a systemwide crisis for the state’s public universities.

Jacqueline Edmondson, president of the University of Southern Maine, in front of the construction of the new student center and dorm at USM’s Portland campus in September 2022, after the school announced a $46 million fundraising campaign. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Maine’s state university system, which includes USM and six other schools, is struggling financially as decades of flat investment relative to inflation catches up with it, and as it weathers a multiyear drop in enrollment fueled by decreasing affordability, growing apathy about the value of a college degree, the COVID-19 pandemic and a dwindling population of young people.

Although the dollar figure appropriated by the state has gone up year over year, it has not kept up with inflation, and the percentage of the system’s general budget covered by the state has shrunk precipitously. In 1972, the state provided nearly 70% of the university system’s funding, and tuition covered the other 30%. Now state money and tuition each cover around 43% of the system’s costs. The rest of the system’s general expenses are paid for with revenue from dining, housing, conferences, and athletics.


Meanwhile, enrollment, which now accounts for a significant portion of the system’s revenue, has plummeted. At the same time, the system faces rising costs caused by inflation and other budget pressures.

The UMaine System’s predicament is hardly unique. Around the country, public university systems are struggling with similar financial, social, and demographic challenges. Some have shuttered entire campuses.

Many are worried about these trends. Educators and others say high-quality, accessible colleges and universities play a crucial role in societal equity, education, and the economy.

This summer, members of the UMaine System Board of Trustees adopted a five-year strategic plan outlining in broad strokes their goals for the future. The system has vowed to avoid drastic measures such as closing campuses; leaders will work to reverse trends in declining enrollment, increase efficiency and attract more students.

A person walks across the mall on the Orono campus at the University of Maine on July 25. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The strategic plan is the first in 19 years. It follows a recent decision by the New England Commission of Higher Education to certify the system as a whole rather than requiring each school to maintain the resources required for certification. Unified accreditation is an integral part of the system’s long-term survival plan. System leadership says it will allow the schools to work together more seamlessly and the system to maximize its collective resources.

The plan includes only broad goals, leaving the details to be filled in later. But it relies partly on doubling down on recruitment initiatives, growing outside funding, and relying on remote learning, which the system has embraced since the pandemic began.


The system has asked each of the schools to lay out by Oct. 1 how they will align themselves with and support the systemwide strategic plan.

How this plan is implemented is likely to define the state’s university system for many years to come.

The process begs questions about the fundamental role of public higher education in society, including what its purpose is, how it should be funded, and what the future of public universities will and should be.

“Higher education matters tremendously for the individual and society,” said Adam Howard, an education professor at Colby College.

Research shows that college graduates earn more over their lifetimes, are happier, have fewer health problems and better relationships, and live longer and that having an educated society allows greater understanding of and participation in the economy and democracy, Howard said.

Public higher education plays a unique role in that it increases access to higher education, notably for those who are less privileged.


At places like Colby, the acceptance rate is less than 10%. Tuition alone costs more than $60,000 a year.

On the other hand, the state’s flagship school, University of Maine Orono, accepts 96% of applicants. The in-state cost of tuition is around $12,000.

“Public universities make higher education more accessible to a socially, economically, and culturally diverse group of students,” Howard said. “Without it, only privileged and advantaged individuals would have access to that which is necessary to have upward mobility.”

Portland High School students tour the University of Maine campus in Orono on July 25. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Public universities, historians say, were founded to serve as a public good for the masses, to strengthen democracy, and as an agent of economic and social growth.

“The key was to provide the individual with not just freedom, but opportunity,” John Aubrey Douglass, a University of California, Berkeley professor, wrote in a 2018 article about the rise of public universities.

The first public universities in the United States were established in the 1700s. Over time, as positive sentiment grew, states started to invest in universities with the help of federal incentives. The University of Maine was founded in 1865 as part of this movement.


Today, there are 1,625 public institutes of higher education, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Those schools serve around 75% of all undergraduate students.

UMaine System schools are spread across the state from northern Maine’s Canadian border to the Down East coast and south to Portland.  The system serves around 25,000 students and has a $1.5 billion statewide economic impact annually, its leaders say. As of the end of June, it employed 6,993 people and put $385 million into the economy through compensation alone. Two-thirds of UMaine alumni – 120,000 people – live in Maine.

Around 40% of all system students enrolled in fall 2022 were first-generation college students. Close to half of the undergrads who applied for federal aid to pay tuition were eligible for a Pell Grant, meaning they displayed exceptional financial need.

The Maine schools served over 16,000 Mainers in spring 2023. Over 23,000 students were enrolled overall.

The system is invaluable to the state’s economy, said Linda Caprara, interim president and CEO of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

“The UMaine system plays a role in growing, developing, and strengthening the workforce and attracting people to the state,” she said. “It is a huge asset.”


In the same way, the system impacts the state’s economy, individual campuses bolster the economies of their host communities.

Schools hire regional staff and faculty, purchase local goods and bring students into different areas of Maine, said Joan Ferrini-Mundy, who holds multiple roles within the system including president of UMaine Orono. All of that helps spur local economies, she said.

But while the system is supporting the state’s economy in many ways, it is simultaneously facing financial challenges of its own.

The 2008 financial crisis greatly exacerbated the shift from government funding to relying more on tuition from students and their families.

At the same time, enrollment has declined, at least partially because of the pandemic, which disrupted many students’ educational paths and caused more people to question the value of a college degree in the face of ballooning student debt.

Total UMaine System enrollment has declined by almost 8% over the past five years, from 25,326 in the spring of 2019 to 23,377 in the spring of 2023. Enrollment of in-state undergrads has declined by 36.7% in the past 10 years, from 22,285 students in fall 2013 to 14,117 in fall 2022, according to the system.


Fewer students mean less tuition collected. Fewer in-state students mean the system is serving fewer of the state’s residents.

The financial situation has resulted in layoffs of tenured faculty and the slashing of programs and extracurriculars and depletion of campus life over the past few years. That in turn has led to a period of turmoil for the UMaine System, highlighted by student sit-ins, faculty votes of no-confidence against system Chancellor Dannel Malloy, and faculty member fears that there will be more layoffs, that programs will be slashed and that campuses will lose their uniqueness and autonomy as power is centralized with the system and the chancellor.

The system’s strategic plan acknowledges its challenges and indicates how it might try to solve them and remain integral to the state.

A person walks by Ferland Engineering Education and Design Center, the newest building at the University of Maine Orono. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

It calls for the system to create financial sustainability by scrapping courses with low enrollment and increasing collaboration between departments, growing enrollment and retention, and increasing external funding. It also calls for strengthening partnerships between Maine businesses, governments, and communities, creating multi-university programs, and increasing internship opportunities. The strategic plan does not lay out how it plans to achieve these goals.

The plan was developed so the system can make the best use of its resources and be as competitive as possible in reaching the next generation of students during a challenging time for public higher education, system leaders said.

Faculty have shared mixed responses to the plan. Some said that change in the UMaine System, as in life, is inevitable and that they trust the system is responding appropriately to challenges. Others said the goals outlined in the plan are laudable, but that they can’t say whether they’re best for Mainers until they know how they will be realized. And many said they are worried that potential changes could undermine the quality of the system.


James Cook is a sociology professor at the University of Maine Augusta. Cook said he’s concerned that under unified accreditation, a large share of individual school academic programs will be moved to the system’s two biggest campuses in Orono and Portland and that programs with lower enrollments will be cut. He pointed to a section of the strategic plan that says system schools should make general education courses available to students on all campuses.

He said he understands the system’s financial realities but is worried that the uniqueness of each school and the students and communities they serve is being ignored and that students are going to lose the opportunity to choose between seven different and robust universities.

“When you centralize everything, you lose the richness and strength of having seven different campuses,” Cook said.

But system officials said that’s not going to happen. “There is no plan to move a significant amount of courses to one or two campuses,” said Jeff St. John, vice chancellor of academic and student affairs.

He said that instead, the system is trying to broaden access.

“The goal of the plan is to ensure that general education as delivered at each of our universities is high quality and readily accessible,” St. John said.


Through both unified accreditation and online education, the system hopes to allow students to take courses at all seven campuses and increase access for nontraditional, nonresidential college students living in Maine and other parts of the country and world.

The hope is that this would attract more students to the system despite demographic realities while allowing the system to remain true to its priority of serving the state and its citizens, St. John said.

“Demographic needs are changing, people’s needs are changing, the economy is changing,” he said. “We’re trying to position the system to best respond to those changes.”

Doing so will likely be challenging. There are a few ways to increase revenue without increasing enrollment. Because public institutions are responsible for serving people in the middle and lower middle classes, increasing tuition can stymie enrollment further. And the online education space is oversaturated and especially challenging for schools without big brand names, said Martin Van Der Werf, director of editorial and education policy at Georgetown University’s Center of Education and the Workforce.

Around the country, Van Der Werf said, systems are fighting to maintain the institutions people expect and those that have historically existed. But the systems in place now were built for a time of increasing college-age students. That time is over, he said.

“The question now is what do we do with that old approach and mission,” Van Der Werf said.

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