The University of Southern Maine and Maine Maritime Academy are listed among the nation’s most expensive public four-year colleges for in-state students, in a report issued Monday by the U.S. Department of Education.
The department ranked colleges in nine categories by their average net price – the amount that students paid after receiving grants and scholarships – based on data from the 2011-12 academic year.
USM ranked 23rd among public four-year colleges, with a net price of $18,177 a year. Maine Maritime Academy ranked 28th, with a net price of $17,726.
At the top of the list was Miami University of Ohio, with a net price of $24,674 for in-state students. The national average for public four-year colleges was $11,582. The average in Maine was $12,787.
Maine’s median household income is $50,121 – 28th in the country, according to the U.S. Census.
Officials from USM and Maine Maritime Academy acknowledged that their high prices are not likely to comfort students or parents, but pointed to their efforts to control students’ costs.
“I want every Maine child who wants an education here to get one, and to be able to help them to do that,” said William J. Brennan, president of Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, which trains students to become part of the merchant marine, the Coast Guard, the Navy or other maritime professions.
“We work hard at keeping our costs low because we want students to be able to come here,” Brennan said.
Judie O’Malley, a spokeswoman for USM, said the university is also making efforts to keep costs down for students.
“We recognized that our net costs were high,” O’Malley said, noting that there has been a tuition freeze for the past three years for in-state students and a $4 million increase in financial aid over four years.
The average cost for room and board for the 2014-15 school year will be $10,006, about $900 less than in 2010-11, she said.
O’Malley said some of the data the school submitted for the annual federal ranking, such as the average number of credit hours and the cost of room and board, were incorrect. She could not immediately say how large the discrepancy was, although the cost for room and board was actually higher for 2010-11 than it was for 2011-12.
O’Malley said USM submitted its data in September 2011 and discovered the error in March 2012, after the federal department’s deadline to make changes.
The rankings are part of an annual update to the Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency List, which was authorized by the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008.
The net cost is the total cost of attendance minus federal, state and local government grants or scholarship aid. The cost of attendance covers tuition and required fees, books and supplies, room and board, and other expenses.
Room and board expenses are calculated for students who live on-campus, off-campus, or off-campus with family members. Other expenses could include laundry, transportation or entertainment, according to the Department of Education.
FLAGSHIP COLLEGE NOT MOST COSTLY
In Maine, the net costs varied widely in 2011-12, even within the seven-campus University of Maine System.
The flagship campus in Orono had a net cost of $15,299, lower than USM’s net cost even though its tuition and fees were higher.
Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability in Washington D.C., said the difference in net cost between USM and UMaine was “somewhat unusual.”
“As a general rule, the main campuses at universities are usually the same price or a good deal more than the branch campuses,” he said.
One explanation for the difference could be that students at UMaine got more in grants and scholarships, Vedder said.
Also, the cost of room and board at USM was higher than at UMaine, likely because of USM’s campus in Portland, a city with some of the highest housing prices in the state.
Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, a publication that covers higher-education issues, said that although it’s important to scrutinize the price that students will pay to attend a particular college, it’s also important to look at the bigger picture. “Context matters a lot,” Jaschik said.
He said public universities in the Northeast tend to cost more than those in other parts of the country because there are so many strong, more-expensive private colleges in the region, and a greater tolerance for higher costs.
IMPORTANT FACTORS BEYOND PRICE
While supporters of the annual list say they hope that it might make more colleges keep their prices down, college officials have said that looking at just the cost doesn’t paint a full picture.
A spokeswoman for Miami University in Ohio, the public four-year college with the highest net cost, attributed the ranking to a loss in state funding, something that many public institutions are facing.
“It’s a telling sign that the states that are not able to spend as much as others are the ones on this list,” she told Inside Higher Ed. “I worry that somebody might stop at just that statistic, but we’re trying to get the word out about outcomes, which is what we find that parents and families want to know: What are my odds of being employed or getting into graduate school.”
Jaschik said specialized institutions, like Maine Maritime Academy, often rank high on such lists because of the higher cost of such training.
In Castine, Brennan said those costs pay off when students enter the job market.
Much of the training at the academy is aimed at giving students the credentials to enter the Coast Guard, which requires expensive equipment and technology. For instance, students use simulation technologies to train for specialized tasks such as sailing a supertanker into a port.
Also, Maine Maritime students are required to be in school two months longer than students at most universities. “Unfortunately those things do have costs,” Brennan said.
He said Maine Maritime places more than 90 percent of its students in their chosen career fields within three months, many of them in jobs with six-figure salaries.
“Even though families see the debt load, they also see the value added of the education that makes it worth the expense,” he said, as many Maine Maritime students repay their student loans within six years.
STATE FUNDING AFFECTS NET PRICE
The UMaine System is grappling with budget cuts that officials blame on flat state funding, declining enrollment and tuition freezes. Earlier this year, the system’s trustees approved a $529 million budget for 2014-15 that includes $11.4 million from emergency reserves and the elimination of about 157 positions. The deep cuts and reserve funds closed a $36 million deficit.
USM students said their school’s comparatively high costs underscore the need to increase state funding.
“Affordability is part of education being a human right and something everyone should have access to,” said Meaghan LaSala of Portland, a senior who has been involved with protests against the budget cuts.
“I don’t think that the students should be bearing the costs of running the university,” she said. “I think it’s really important that the Legislature take that issue seriously and reinvest in our state by reinvesting in higher education.”
Jaschik, of Inside Higher Ed, said much of the net price is determined by how much funding a school gets from the state. If state funding is cut, an institution can respond in various ways, charging more to avoid cuts or charging less and making cuts.
“It’s not always clear to me that charging less helps as many people,” he said.
For instance, if a university cuts sections of a class because of budget constraints, and students can’t get into classes, that means they can’t graduate in four years.
“In those cases,” he said, “who has saved money?”