ORONO — The University of Maine System trustees voted Monday to freeze in-state tuition for a fourth straight year, pending approval of the governor’s proposed 1.7 percent increase in state funding.

“I’m very pleased that we’re able to hold tuition flat,” board Chairman Sam Collins said after the trustees met at the University of Maine campus. “It has been a priority of all the trustees to make tuition affordable in Maine.”

The decision keeps tuition and the mandatory fees at Orono, the system’s flagship campus, at $10,606, and makes the UMaine System something of an outlier nationally. In the past five years, Maine is the only state where tuition, adjusted for inflation, hasn’t increased, according to the College Board. The next-lowest increase was 3 percent in Montana. Nationwide, in-state tuition has increased 17 percent over the same period at public four-year institutions, according to the board’s figures.

Rebecca Wyke, the system’s vice chancellor of finance and administration, said the governor’s proposed budget, which would increase system funding from the state for the first time in three years, made the freeze possible.

The governor’s budget, which is being debated in Augusta, calls for boosting state funding by 1.7 percent, to $179.2 million, for the fiscal year ending June 2016, and by 1.93 percent, to $182.6 million, for the following fiscal year. That’s about half of what the system requested.

“Thank you so much,” UMaine junior Connor Scott told the trustees after the vote, noting that he and five of his siblings all attend system schools. “This is definitely a step in the right direction.”

UMaine-Farmington sophomore Jamie Austin, 19, said the tuition freeze is critical for her.

“It means I can keep going,” said Austin, who is studying political science. She already gets some financial aid and does work-study, but she also has been forced to take out student loans.

Paying for college is “definitely challenging,” said Austin, who expects to graduate with about $25,000 in student loan debt. The average Maine college graduate has $30,000 in student debt, according to The Project on Student Debt.

BUDGET TAPS EMERGENCY RESERVES

Before the tuition freeze, the system had several years of annual tuition increases.

UMaine tuition remains higher than the national average of $9,139 annually. At Orono, in-state tuition and fees have increased from $6,394 in 2005 to $10,606 today. Tuition and fees at the University of Southern Maine are $8,540 a year.

At the current price, tuition and fees alone make up about 18 percent of Maine’s median household income of $50,487, officials said.

“It’s becoming almost a mortgage payment,” Trustee Shawn Moody said of tuition. “It’s tough (to freeze tuition), but it’s absolutely worthwhile. We have to do it.”

Whether the freeze could continue in future years depends on many budget factors, including the state appropriation, said university system spokesman Dan Demeritt.

“When the day comes that tuition goes up, the trustees are committed to tying it to inflation,” he said. “We don’t want it to grow faster than Mainers’ ability to pay.”

The tuition freeze means trustees plan to take $9 million from emergency reserves to balance the system’s $519 million budget for the fiscal year beginning in July. Last year’s $529 million system budget required using $11.4 million in emergency funds and cutting 157 positions.

Officials say the years of ongoing budget deficits have been the result of flat state funding, declining enrollment and three years of tuition freezes.

According to the system’s proposed budget, $2.6 million in emergency and reserve funds would go to UMaine-Presque Isle; $1.5 million to UMaine-Fort Kent; $1.5 million to USM; $1.3 million to UMaine-Machias; $1 million to the system office; and $561,000 to UMaine-Farmington.

UMaine-Augusta and the school in Orono do not have deficits.

Aside from state allocations, tuition is the system’s other major source of revenue.

The emergency funds would come from reserves and a budget stabilization fund created in 2010 for the purpose of offsetting operating shortfalls at the campuses. Last year was the first time the budget stabilization funds were used.

The trustees will take a final vote on the budget and tuition freeze at their May 17-18 meeting.

propertY sold, enrollment down

Also Monday, the trustees approved a plan to sell multiple system properties, including system headquarters at 16 Central St. in Bangor. Also approved for sale were about 30 acres of undeveloped land with road frontage on Stillwater Avenue in Old Town, and Kimball Hall on the UMaine-Machias campus, which houses faculty offices and a small dining area.

The trustees also approved a plan for USM to explore the possible sale or lease of several single-family residences known as the “white houses.” The board had been scheduled to vote Monday on whether to authorize the sale of the buildings, but outgoing USM President David Flanagan told trustees Sunday that they should consider holding on to the land while either selling or leasing the buildings.

Also Monday, system officials reported that spring 2015 enrollment systemwide was 27,231 students, down 3 percent from last year at this time and 9.5 percent lower than five years ago.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]