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AUGUSTA MATTERS: College system needs our support

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Posted: Thursday, March 14, 2013 2:00 pm

This past week the Maine State Senate and House of Representatives came together for a joint session to hear about the state of higher education in Maine. We heard from Dr. William Brennan, president of Maine Maritime Academy, Dr. James Page, chancellor of the University of Maine system and Dr. John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System.

Maine Maritime Academy has about 1,000 students of whom 70 percent are Maine residents. There is high demand for positions at the academy and more than 90 percent of graduates finding jobs within six months of graduation. They offer a specialized program in engineering, management, science and transportation and are one of only six such colleges in the country. They have also partnered with the Maine Community College system to provide opportunities for students who need extra preparation. They start in the Community College System knowing that, if successful in their studies, they have a place at the Academy.

The University of Maine system consists of seven universities, a law school and more than 35 research, outreach and cooperative extension centers throughout the state. Dr. Page was hired in the past year and charged with making the system more responsive to today’s needs. He outlined several initiatives under way, including making credits transferable between the various schools in the system.

They have also made a commitment to make the public system affordable to the average Maine family. They have frozen tuition and mandatory fees for in-state undergraduates for the current academic year and are ready to hold the freeze in place for the next two academic years if the Legislature commits to flat funding for the university system for this coming budget cycle.

The third initiative is to improve efficiency. Under Dr. Page’s leadership they have begun a multi-year, top-to-bottom review of all administrative services to improve service and reduce cost. Three initiatives are already under way with one initiative identifying $3.2 million in savings.

A fourth initiative is to enhance opportunities for “non-traditional” learners with sites for distance learning. He described the URock Outreach Center in Rockland where students can take courses online as well as receive advising, financial aid assistance, academic tutoring and create a local learning community.  Dr. Page also described a number of impressive student and faculty contributions in research and economic development that are helping Maine businesses.

The Maine Community College System ( MCCS) is comprised of seven community colleges and eight off-campus centers which annually serve over 31,000 students through degree programs, credit and noncredit courses, and customized training. The Southern Maine Community College is the campus for our region. I visited it last month and saw what a resource it is for our area. The tuition for a full time (30 credit) in-state student is $2,580/year. This is the lowest of comparable schools in New England and quite a bargain!

The school provides a wide range of degree programs from culinary arts and automotive technology to health professions and liberal arts. About 95 percent of their graduates stay in Maine to work. There has been high demand for the programs with 9-percent growth yearly until this past year when it was limited to 1 percent because of lack of additional resources. The school has worked with Maine businesses to identify skills needed for jobs now available in Maine that require a high level of technical skill.  

The budget over the past several years has had decreased or flat state student subsidies. As a result the school has deferred maintenance and cannot expand the programs needed to meet the demands of the new economy.

I believe that hard times often breed innovation and we are seeing that at all of our Maine schools of higher learning. We cannot afford any additional cutbacks in our support for these institutions if we want to adapt and succeed in the future. While all of these systems provide value, I see our community college system needing the most support right now. I will work with my fellow legislators to find a way to do this.

Jane Pringle represents District 111, part of Windham. She welcomes your ideas and comments at jane.p.pringle@gmail.com

Welcome to the discussion.