SOUTH PORTLAND – Maine Community College System President John Fitzsimmons said there were a hundred reasons to considering raising tuition at the system’s seven schools next year but one overriding reason not to.

“Maine people cannot afford it,” he said Wednesday prior to a meeting of the board of trustees.

Trustees voted unanimously in favor of Fitzsimmons’ recommendation to freeze tuition at $2,580 per year for in-state students and $5,160 for out-of-state students beginning in the fall. It’s the eighth time in 14 years that the system has kept tuition flat.

“We’ve made a promise to be the high-quality low-cost option in higher education and we plan to keep that promise,” he said.

Kris Doody, chairwoman of the board of trustees, said keeping the tuition rate flat during a time of tremendous growth is an accomplishment by staff, both at the system office and at the seven community colleges scattered throughout Maine. From 2002 to 2011, enrollment at Maine community colleges has grown from 10,127 to 18,546, an increase of 83 percent.

“We recognize how crucial it is to keep higher education affordable for Maine students, especially now,” Doody said.

Added Fitzsimmons: “We’re growing because we’ve kept costs down,” he said. “But we also turned away people last year and we don’t want to turn away anyone because of cost.”

Since 2002, tuition has increased from $2,040 per year for in-state students to the current rate at $2.580, which includes a 2.4-percent increase last year. Still, fees and tuition costs at Maine community colleges are the lowest in New England, according to the New England Board of Higher Education. In 1998, Maine had the second-highest costs in the country.

Despite those low costs, Fitzsimmons said more than 80 percent of community college students request some form of student aid. That, he said, is a sign that students continue to struggle to pay for their education. Three out of four students work while taking classes and half work full-time.

Because the state’s community colleges are predominantly commuter schools, campuses have not had to build new housing to accommodate the enrollment spike. But Doody said it still costs more money to educate more students. And, the system is losing $660,000 in state funds next year because of budget cuts.

“It’s a real balancing act of encouraging growth while providing quality education,” she said.

The Maine Community College System oversees seven campuses in South Portland, Auburn, Wells, Fairfield, Bangor, Presque Isle and Calais. Each offers a variety of associate degree and certificate programs.

Earlier this year, trustees of the University of Maine System also voted to freeze tuition. It was the first time in 25 years that the system has not increased tuition or fees. Unlike the Maine Community College System, UMS said seen enrollment drop, by about 0.5 percent last year. Prior to this year, the system raised tuition by 4.3 percent in 2011, which came on the heels of a 5-percent increase in 2010.

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:
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