April 07, 2020

Lawmakers mull proposed UMS funding changes> Quality, competition concerns raised

AUGUSTA — Although lawmakers appear generally supportive of proposed changes to the formula used by the University of Maine System to divide state funds among its campuses, they do have concerns about the impact on quality and competition.

The new funding mechanism, the first change in the system’s 30-year history, would give more state money to campuses that increase their enrollments. Schools that lose students would lose money.

Chancellor Terry MacTaggart presented the new formula to the Legislature’s Education Committee Thursday, saying it would “encourage the universities to educate more Maine students.”

“My concern is that if you fund based on enrollment, you lose sight of quality,” said Rep. Irvin Belanger, R-Caribou. “If you’re going to have a quality institution, you need to have more than just numbers.”

Under the proposed formula, for each 1 percent gain in enrollment a campus would get a 0.8 percent increase in new money from the state. On the down side, campuses would lose 0.4 percent for each 1 percent drop in enrollment.

If no increase in funding is forthcoming from the Legislature, all bets are off, MacTaggart said, and the formula would have to be revised.

The changes were prompted by a bill by Rep. Elizabeth Watson, D-Farmingdale, that proposed to divide new state money among the system’s seven campuses based on the number of students and what type of degree they are pursuing. She sought such a change as a way to get more money for the Augusta campus, which last year faced a $1 million deficit. Her bill was withdrawn in favor of a resolve directing the system to devise a new formula with an enrollment component.

The formula was presented to the system’s board of trustees Monday. Public hearings will be held on the proposed changes next month and the trustees will vote on them in March.

The proposal also would give an extra $600,000 to the Augusta campus and $300,000 to the Farmington campus to be phased in over the next three years. A consultant recommended giving more money to these schools because they have been underfunded in the past.

Although the formula presented by MacTaggart isn’t exactly what she would have done, Watson, a student at the University of Maine at Augusta, said she still believes the system is moving in the right direction.

She is concerned, however, that the revamped formula would set up a lot of competition among campuses to attract students.

Trustee John DiMatteo, chair of the board’s finance committee, responded that he believed the campuses were different enough that competition would not be much of a problem.

Although enrollment at the University of Maine has declined steadily in recent years and the number of students at the University of Southern Maine has increased, the chair of the UM faculty senate said his campus could support the proposed changes.

“We can live with this one,” engineering Professor Dana Humphrey said in an interview.

When the formula is reviewed in three years, as the chancellor proposed, Humphrey said his campus would like to see consideration given to the fact that it costs more to offer graduate programs than it does for undergraduate programs. He said it costs 10 times as much to educate a Ph.D student as it does for someone getting an associate degree.

Several lawmakers suggested campuses, particularly Orono, could attract more students if they did a better job of marketing themselves.

Rep. Vaughn Stedman, R-Hartland, suggested UM has lost students because of bad press, particularly about its athletics programs.

“The system has got to do a better job of marketing what it does to the public,” said Rep. Alvin Barth, R-Bethel.

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