ORONO — In a recent article about college costs (“College costs defy conventional wisdom,” March 22), Portland Press Herald reporter J. Craig Anderson highlights that for some students, it may be less expensive to attend a private rather than a public college, despite the significant differences in tuition between them.

Students who are academically strong and are from lower-income families oftentimes can afford to attend elite private institutions because of the generous financial aid packages that such schools typically are able to offer. Consequently, they may graduate with little or no debt, while their counterparts graduating from public universities may accumulate significantly more.

Anderson reports the average debt for students graduating from the University of Maine in 2013 to be $33,875. As UMaine’s chief academic officer, I am concerned about this number. It’s too high.

The University of Maine System board of trustees is concerned as well. At their March meeting, the trustees voted to freeze the tuition rate for Maine residents at all system campuses for the fourth year in a row. Four years with a stable tuition rate is unprecedented in the system’s history, is happening nowhere else in the country and is good news for Maine citizens.

Cost containment is an important strategy for managing student debt, but our analysis of the debt levels of students who graduate from UMaine suggests that, by itself, a tuition freeze won’t reduce graduates’ debt. We’ve teased apart the data from the past three years to develop a more nuanced picture of the debt carried by UMaine graduates.

Here’s one of the more interesting things that we found: The amount of debt students accumulate on their journey to a bachelor’s degree depends on how long that journey takes. The average student debt for Maine residents who complete their UMaine degree in four years is $22,101. For those who graduate in five, it’s $29,973, and if it takes six years to graduate, the debt load is $33,482.

The implications of these findings are obvious: If we can help students complete their degrees in a timely fashion, we can cut costs significantly.

In fall 2013, I assembled a team of faculty, staff and administrators to examine the factors associated with UMaine student persistence to graduation and to gather information about best practices at institutions across the nation. This work culminated in the Provost’s Action Plan for Retention and Graduation, a working road map that spells out a series of steps we are taking this year and next to improve student retention and graduation.

Here are a few examples.

n Every first-year student will have at least three points of contact in the first three weeks of the semester to ensure that they start off on the right foot. They will have the opportunity to participate in a first-year success course to orient them to the college experience and develop the time-management and study skills they will need to succeed.

n An early alert system is being developed to identify students at risk for failure based upon early performance indicators so we can connect them with help to get back on track. All students will have access to high-quality advising when they need it.

n And this summer, we will launch a campaign to increase the number of UMaine students who complete their degrees in four years. With a working title of “30 a year will get you there,” our campaign will raise awareness among students, parents, faculty and staff of the importance of completing 30 credit hours each year in order to graduate in four.

UMaine students have a wide range of backgrounds and life circumstances. Even though most are enrolled full time at the university, most also work while attending school. The 30-a-year initiative recognizes our students’ realities. We will offer courses during winter session and as part of our summer university – online and in the classroom – to ensure that students have the opportunities they need to stay on track to finish in four years.

At the University of Maine, we are very concerned about what it costs our students to earn their degrees. We are committed to providing high-quality education at a cost that is within reach of most Maine families.

As we celebrate our 150th anniversary, we have recommitted ourselves to the original land grant mission – to provide a practical education, built on a solid liberal arts foundation, at a price that is affordable to working-class Maine citizens.