By Dr. Lisa Botshon, Professor of English, University of Maine Augusta & Dr. Audrey Fisch is Professor of English at New Jersey City University

Last year, Governor Janet Mills proclaimed that state residents who graduated from high school between 2020 and 2022 would be eligible for free tuition at any of the state’s community colleges (the program has since been expanded to include 2023 graduates as well). This program, which touts itself as “the best deal ever” was promoted as a progressive way to provide access to higher education to thousands of students, and, indeed, enrollment at community colleges surged by 12% this past fall.

At first glance, this increase in enrollment might support the idea that this program is in fact “the best deal ever.” However, if we dig deeper, it becomes painfully obvious that such initiatives are instead limiting potential opportunities for Maine’s college students.

A presumably unintended outcome of this program is that enrollments in the University of Maine System (UMS) have decreased substantially. For example, as reported in these pages a few months ago, the University of Southern Maine saw considerable declines last fall. Because tuition accounts for over 25% of all funding, such declines represent a significant decrease in revenue.

It is not difficult to see how this mathematical equation will play out. The more that students are only supported to attend the community colleges of Maine tuition-free, the fewer students will attend the universities. The fewer students enrolled in the UMS, the less funding is available to bolster programs that will attract and nurture students.

As it stands, the number of students and their tuition dollars is existentially significant to the sustainability of public higher education. With even marginal drops in student enrollment, public institutions cannot balance their budgets and are forced to respond with pink slips, program closures, and reductions in classes, as happened at the University of Farmington in the spring of 2022, when nine full-time faculty members were terminated.

This past spring, some members of the Maine state legislature sought to rebalance the fragile public higher education ecosystem by proposing a bill that would provide tuition waivers for Maine residents who elect to matriculate in the University of Maine System. However, not only would these be “last dollar” waivers – in other words, they cover tuition not taken care of by other federal and state grants – but they would mandate another cycle of public institutions of higher education competing against each other for a dwindling pot of funds.

While educational leaders like David Daigler, president of the community college system in Maine, argue that competition among institutions of higher education is “healthy,” the
loss of programs, faculty members, and financial equilibrium on our campuses increases educational gaps and ultimately diminishes access.

Why is this happening? Public higher education has been decimated by decades of serious underfunding. The National Education Association notes that the majority of states spent less on public colleges and universities in 2020 than in 2008, with an average decline of nearly $1500 per student. Looking back further, in the 1970s, states paid
65 percent of the costs of college; by 2013, that support had declined to 30 percent of college costs. Today, it’s even less.

Ideally, public higher education would be free. But while free community college and tuition waiver programs sound like they promote access, they actually undercut the institutions – and, as a result, the students they purport to support. Legislators need to view public higher education from a holistic vantage point and should respect the ways in which different kinds of public institutions fill the needs of different students. Instead of playing musical chairs with funding, let’s restore state funding to sustainable levels for all of our public institutions of higher learning. Only then will we produce real access and the educated citizenry that Maine needs.

A version of this piece appeared in the Portland Press Herald on May 18, 2023