March 8, 2013

Maine Voices: University system seeks a grand bargain to accomplish a grand plan

Officials hope consistent funding will allow it to better meet the needs of students and the state.

By KARL TURNER

CUMBERLAND - Faced with the same realities confronting public higher education across the country, the trustees of the University of Maine System adopted a series of goals and objectives in January 2012 intended to make UMS more responsive to key stakeholders.

That step put a renewed focus on Maine's students and their families, taxpayers and employers. The trustee goals and objectives line up in three broad categories. Let's look at them in more detail.

In the past, public higher education costs for tuition and fees grew rapidly, fueled by grants and student loans guaranteed by the federal government, state government appropriations, and family savings and income. Today, these resources are "tapped out."

Our dysfunctional federal government has been running dangerously high budget deficits. Maine's proposed budget for the two-year cycle beginning July 1 is the same size as the one approved six years ago.

In addition, Maine families' savings have been eroded and the state's median income is nearly $4,000 less than in 2007.

In response to this new reality, the university system has frozen (for the first time in 25 years) tuition and fees for the current academic year and has committed to do the same for the next two academic years -- assuming the state can manage to flat-fund UMS in its upcoming two-year budget. The current proposal does exactly that.

Two generations ago, it was the norm for college students to graduate in four years. Today, taking six years to secure a bachelor's degree has become the standard.

Far too many of our students start college but never finish their degree program. To make matters worse, most incur debt without ever getting the degree that promises higher income and more stable employment. And they can only discharge that debt by paying it off; bankruptcy is not an option.

We are addressing this in the future by making certain that pre-identified courses taken through the Maine Community College System are fully accepted at any of UMS's seven universities.

Additionally, core curriculum courses taken at any university in the system will fully count for degree credit at any other university in the system.

Further, policy changes have been made to require that no more than 121 credit hours are needed to earn a bachelor's degree.

These long-overdue changes will directly reduce the time and cost of obtaining the credits needed for a four-year degree.

This ability for Maine's students to start at any Maine community college or UMS campus and complete their degree at another UMS campus, with a road map devoid of dead ends, is essential to their financial health and the state's economy.

Administratively, there is plenty of opportunity to extract savings by moving to common functions that are shared by the seven universities. Those savings, as they are captured, will be redeployed into the system's three missions: teaching, research and public service.

Administrative redesign projects currently under way include: procurement, human resources, information technology and outcomes-based funding. Additional projects are cued up for review and redesign.

A little more on outcomes-based funding: It seeks to reward campuses financially for achieving targeted results in the awarding of high-need degrees essential to Maine's future as well as improving student retention.

Attracting more non-traditional students who also may have had some college and helping them complete degree requirements will be another goal rewarded by outcomes-based funding.

Using technology to enhance academic pursuits is imperative for public higher education, but it needs to be accomplished using a human touch.

Maine can no longer satisfy its work force needs by focusing solely on further education for its graduating high school seniors. There are not enough of them.

Attention must be turned to working adults with some college (a six-figure population in Maine) and efforts are under way to deliver the high quality, cost effective, degree-granting education needed to grow and sustain Maine's economy.

This is a multi-year effort being led by the system's chancellor and university presidents. It is important work essential to Maine's future!

Karl Turner of Cumberland is a member of the University of Maine System board of trustees.

 

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