The Maine Higher Education Experiment: What’s the Real Lesson Here?

The University of Maine recently announced that it would start charging qualified students from Massachusetts the same tuition and fees that they would pay to attend the University of Massachusetts’ flagship campus at Amherst.

For nonresidents, this represents a savings of about $15,000 off the comprehensive fee’s sticker price for Massachusetts residents. The offer also extends to other students from other states, including Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont.

In late December, the Boston Globe editorialized that this approach was good for the region. The Globe’s editors argued that the value of the program exceeded the benefit offered to individual students.

The newspaper suggested that it might spur the University of Massachusetts to offer similar price breaks and expand opportunities from throughout the region for students to apply to majors and specialty programs not available where they live.

Finally, the Globe asserted that it fulfilled the Massachusetts State Department of Higher Education’s mandate to “ provide accessible, affordable, relevant, and rigorous programs that adapt to meet changing individual and societal needs for education and employment.”

Of course, there are a number of ways to promote regionalization that also increase access and choice. One approach is to allow student aid to move with the student out-of-state if a students elects to attend a college or university beyond the state boundaries.

For states like Vermont and Pennsylvania with generous student grant programs, this seems like an especially attractive alternative. Let the students take the money with them. If the programs are of quality and the goal is to produce educated and employable graduates, there is not much downside to this strategy.

The problem in Massachusetts, unfortunately, is that state support is directed toward institutions and not students. The second problem is while Massachusetts has a disproportionate share – a kind of embarrassment of riches – of elite colleges like Wellesley, Williams, and Amherst and distinguished global universities like MIT and Harvard – its willingness to support students, under-endowed private institutions, and its public colleges and universities is legendary throughout the rest of the country.

As such, the Globe’s position leaves many of us scratching our heads over how thoughtful editorialists could fail so brilliantly at understanding how higher education works, whether for the better or worse.

It seems more likely that the efforts by the University of Maine reflect the miserable demographics that its public colleges and universities face. While the Massachusetts Department of Education does have a mandate to provide accessible, affordable education, its mandate extends only to the citizens that it serves. This mandate does not extend to students from throughout New England whose states have similar mandates to benefit their own citizens.

The taxpayers subsidize the Commonwealth’s public colleges and universities. Massachusetts’ taxpayers should not be expected to extend these tax benefits to out-of-state students, especially if the quality of a college and university education in Massachusetts exceeds that available in other states. As such, the Globe should not confuse experimentation and lower tuition prices for what is really happening. Maine is extending this benefit because it cannot fill its seats.

In the higher education community, this is tantamount to poaching – or aggressive marketing – depending upon who is spinning it.

If New England needs more experimentation in tuition pricing, then the solution must be comprehensive and cross state lines. It should not be a reactive policy designed to offset an aggressive marketing strategy in Maine. Indeed, Massachusetts should look at the sources and uses of its current funding first to set a better policy in place.

If it does, taxpayers and consumers might discover that the difficulties associated with the current incremental and politicized higher education funding strategy cuts across several political administrations. The problem is not that Massachusetts higher education leaders are slow to react to Maine’s marketing ploy but that higher education is treated not as a funding priority but as a low priority in the state’s limited discretionary spending capacity in each budget cycle.

If Massachusetts is serious about funding higher education, it must consider the following:

  • How can the “eds and meds” capital of the country keep its best graduates and attract others from out-of-state if it fails to provide basic, sustainable funding for public higher education that better supports a comprehensive list of differentiated programs and degrees to fuel the state’s economy and support a well-educated citizenry?
  • How can it de-link MIT and Williams and their level of endowment support from the rest of private higher education to encourage access and choice for in-state students through a generous student grant program at under-endowed private colleges?
  • How can it support community colleges through better base funding and link the graduation of two-year students to four-year colleges by offering additional transfer support to these students?

The last thing that New England needs is a sticker price war among state higher education sectors. It is far more important that each state establish the value of higher education within its funding priorities, imagine the best way to provide ongoing and innovative support, and keep their eyes on the prize – well educated and employable graduates. Fix the problems at home first.

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Maine Higher Education Experiment: What’s the Real Lesson Here?

  1. Maine’s program seems like a wonderful idea, and perhaps it can spur Massachusetts to increase support for higher education. But this notion of privatizing student financial aid in order to help private colleges rather than public institutions strikes me as deeply misguided. It will only exacerbate the funding crisis for public colleges.

  2. In today’s digital world, education is fungible and transferable across geopolitical boundaries (internationally). Constructing and maintaining physical spaces is also increasingly expensive. It makes sense from an academic perspective to share both physical and intellectual resources to provide the best education, particularly post secondary where specialization is increasingly important.

    One understands that education is more than what is learned in the classroom and that needs to be re-examined if we are to have a future population able to participate in society as well as to contribute to the economic well-being. And while the two functions can not be completely decoupled, the system needs to be rethought in an increasingly digital world, setting “ego” aside.

    As has been argued elsewhere, the academic needs of today’s society can be parsed into the ratio of 1:2:7 We will need only 1 Ph.D. to 2 Masters or equivalent and 7 with advanced education beyond secondary schools. The last includes the equivalent of current 2 year institutions and certificate programs.

    The issue with the the MA/ME discussed here is only one dimension of a shifting educational system,P->gray, globally. Many universities understand this as they move physically and virtually to globalize. International students, in the world of work, are also MA’s next door neighbors. In one respect, the editorial is on target. Students deserve the fiscal support to get the best they can and let the marketplace decide.

    Subsidizing an educational model which may be a sunset industry in its current embodiment might be like subsidizing the manufacturer of computer whose factories have passed their “use by” date. Change is hard, especially in education which prides itself in its knowledge creation; but, as an institution that prides itself as the equivalent of a hand-crafted industry, it might be best co-located in Colonial Williamsburg.

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