BIDDEFORD — The University of New England is freezing employees’ pay this year to keep tuition increases down.

The school, with campuses in Biddeford and Portland, said costs have increased because it has expanded academic programs. But school officials want to avoid higher tuition bills that could discourage students from applying, but at the same time maintain the school’s financial footing.

“We’re a very fiscally stable institution and we want to stay that way,” said Nicole Trufant, the college’s senior vice president of finance and administration. “We want to make sure we aren’t making decisions now that put us in a financial fix down the road.”

UNE expects about 775 freshman this fall, a larger-than-average incoming class. The school generally admits about 750 new students a year, although it peaked at 813 in the fall of 2016, said Scott Steinberg, vice president of admissions. He said about 30 percent of the incoming class is made up of students who are the first in their family to attend college and many UNE students rely on federal Pell grants to help pay the cost of attending.

That task would be more difficult with a big tuition hike, Steinberg said. UNE aims to increase its tuition by no more than 3 percent this fall. Undergraduate tuition is currently $36,300 and has increased by more than 10 percent since 2015, when it was $32,880, according to figures provided by UNE.

Steinberg said UNE has expanded its offerings in recent years, adding a dental school, a master’s degree program in public health, a doctoral program in education, and additional degree programs in applied nutrition and social work. It has also increased the number of students in its osteopathic medical school in an effort to graduate more doctors. The school also added an NCAA Division III varsity football program last year after four years of planning.

A program that offers the school’s undergrads “early assurance” of acceptance into UNE graduate schools has attracted more applicants, Steinberg said. In all, UNE has created or expanded 10 new undergraduate programs and five graduate programs in the last five years, school officials said.

Steinberg said UNE, which operates Maine’s only medical school, also added a school of pharmacy in recent years and opened a campus in Tangier, Morocco. But the pharmacy school, along with UNE’s online courses, have run into increased competition, he said.

As of 2018, UNE had 4,119 students on campus and another 2,252 taking courses online. It has 1,372 employees – 577 of them faculty members – and an annual operating budget of $230 million as of fiscal 2019, an increase of 23 percent since fiscal year 2015, when it was $187 million, according to figures provided by UNE.

BALANCING ACT

Employees were told of the salary freeze last week, Trufant said. They received average pay hikes of 2.1 percent in 2015 and 2016, and 3 percent in 2017 and 2018. The average pay raise was 1.6 percent in the current fiscal year.

Employees said the pay freeze isn’t a surprise.

“We felt it was coming,” said Dana Hutchins, a UNE employee who helps set up events at the school’s Biddeford campus. “I kind of predicted it because they’ve been building a lot.”

Faculty members also expected the university to hold the line on pay increases, said Stine Brown, a biology professor who is chair of UNE’s faculty assembly.

“We’re always hopeful, but I don’t think anybody was like, ‘Oh, rats,’ ” she said. The administration’s goal, Brown said, has been to use “all the tools available” to maintain stable finances.

“The value at UNE is, we’re not going to stick it to the students to be able to pay us more,” she said.

“We planned for this,” Trufant said, and determined two years ago that the increasing costs, including salaries, weren’t sustainable. College officials adopted a plan to control costs as a way to retain students while also incorporating the new programs, she said.

“We want to manage our tuition,” Steinberg said, and UNE has caps on enrollment in many of its graduate programs. Some of that is required by accrediting organizations, he said, and some were because of  decisions by UNE officials to control costs.

The university’s top officials have salaries that range from $660,000 for the president to $234,000 for the dean of the pharmacy school, according to UNE’s tax forms from 2016, the most recent year available.

The school’s endowment in 2018 was about $73 million.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]