January 21, 2020

UMS policy shift would east the student load

There is an alternative to the policy extremes currently being advocated for public higher education in Maine. The University of Maine System (UMS) wants more money, and would just as soon not have Gov. Angus King or the Legislature tell it how to spend it. Two influential former UMS trustees, on the other hand, have recommended dismantling the system and taking the current $132 million annual subsidy away from UMS administrators and giving it in voucher form to UMS students instead. By empowering students rather than administrators, the Wells-Fitzgerald plan hopes to improve UMS quality via customer (i.e. student) service and competition.

The governor says he supports the idea of more competition enhancing UMS quality, but he’s “not there yet.” Speaker of the House-to-be Libby Mitchell is not pleased that the laissez faire recommendations of “her” Commission on Higher Education have so quickly lost the agenda spotlight. The chancellor and the trustees give lip service to “access,” which is arguably the central concern of most students, parents and legislators, as well as being the principle justification for annually funnelling $132 million taxpayer dollars into the UMS.

Public support of the UMS is so low that the trustees didn’t even seriously try to put a bond issue on this past November’s ballot. We have a governor who will not lead, a board of trustees which demonstrably cannot lead, and a chancellor who wants to lead but has no followers.

There is an alternative between the status quo of a rapacious, mediocre and customer-indifferent UMS and dismantling the system and jeopardizing the investment that Maine has made over the past 100 years in the seven actual and one “virtual” campuses. That alternative would empower students and protect the integrity and independence of the system. It would preserve the cultural and public service contributions that university campuses make to their communities. It would force UMS to recognize that its raison d’etre is students. And perhaps most importantly, this alternative would effectively and dramatically increase student access.

What is this alternative? A significant increase in funding of the Maine Student Incentive Scholarship Program (MSISP) run by the Finance Authority of Maine. Maine high school graduates can currently qualify for scholarship grants of $500 to $1,000 from MSISP. About half of MSISP grants are currently used by students at UMS, the Technical College System or Maine Maritime Academy. The balance is used by students at private institutions, both in Maine and beyond.

Increasing MSISP funding would directly increase student access by making post-secondary education more affordable for more young Maine students and their families. At the same time, by giving financial aid directly to students rather than institutions, MSISP gives students a choice and creates competition among post-secondary institutions. The taxpayer subsidy follows the students to institutions of their choice — students are not forced to attend UMS or any other particular institution in order to receive that subsidy.

Public higher education would be forced to compete on the basis of quality and customer (student) service — and while that change might be painful, it is the only way that system performance will improve. Certainly rewarding the current level of mediocrity with even more funds sends the wrong message. Competition and customer service are the keys to quality.

I am not suggesting that MSISP funding simply be increased. Such a suggestion is as naive as the chancellor’s call for a major UMS funding increase. Rather, I suggest that the Legislature cut $15 million from public higher education institutional funding and match that with another $15 million, for a $30 million increase in MSISP funding. The overall UMS budget effect should be a wash, but the resulting competition and shift of power from institutions to students should substantially improve UMS performance, while simultaneously enhancing student access. If you want even more student access bang for the buck, means test the MSISP grants, so that the neediest students get the most assistance.

Such a shift in policy will be absolutely opposed by the chancellor, the trustees and UMS administrators. After all, their power will be eroded. However, remember why we are spending $132 million a year on the UMS. The one thing that Owen Wells and Buzz Fitzgerald got absolutely right is remembering who the system is for: the students. And remembering that is the key to improving UMS quality, performance and responsiveness.

Jon Reisman is associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Maine at Machias

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