College students faced with rising costs and historic levels of debt can be forgiven for blanching at the sight of a new student center or gymnasium on campus. Particularly when faculty size and class offerings are being cut, any money spent that does not go directly to the classroom can feel like a case of misplaced priorities.

It’s not the building of new facilities, however, that is driving the rise of tuition at public colleges in Maine and around the country, nor is it the quest for bigger and better student amenities or the pay of top administrators.

Instead, the cost of public higher education has risen as a direct result of cuts in public funding. Starting more than three decades ago and accelerating through the most recent recession, the lagging investment in higher education has forced colleges to raise tuition even while laying off faculty and forgoing necessary maintenance.

As the University of Maine System attempts a much-needed transformation amid crippling budget shortfalls, it’s important to remember that cost increases in the system are merely plugging holes in the budget, not providing cover for free spending.

Since 2010, the revenue raised throughout the system from tuition and fees has increased 21 percent when adjusted for inflation. However, overall spending has fallen 2.6 percent. The increase in tuition revenue is not funding salary increases or vanity projects; it’s just keeping the lights on.

That’s because, in the same time, the state appropriation to the University of Maine System has decreased by 8.7 percent. That, along with the loss of other revenue, is too much for the system to overcome, despite heavy cuts to faculty and class offerings at both the University of Maine and University of Southern Maine.

The same scenario has played out across the country. Half of the states are still spending less on higher education than they were before the recession. Most, including Maine, have started to increase higher education spending, but as of May 2014, the average state had cut per student spending by 23 percent, or $2,026, in the prior four years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. At the same time, the average tuition at four-year public colleges had increased 28 percent, or $1,936 per student.

As a result, public colleges and universities are, on the whole, offering less but charging more. Higher education, meant to be a way to advance to the middle class, is instead becoming more inaccessible to some students while saddling others with high student debt. That’s neither desirable nor sustainable.

As they deal with a budget shortfall projected at $69 million by 2019, University of Maine System officials are right to consolidate administration, reduce duplication between campuses, and become more adaptable to the demands of the workforce. The system was built for a different time, and it has to adjust.

But even a transformed system won’t be successful without the proper level of public support.