Zero tuition

Higher education has been much in the news these days, and not in a nice way.

Millionaires buy college acceptance for their children. College graduates emerge with an impressive degree and bloodcurdling debt.

Post-secondary education has yielded some grisly headlines of late. Except in Maine, where you don’t need to bribe anyone to get in and you don’t have to work three jobs after you get out. It all started five years ago.

In 2014, University of Maine System Chancellor Jim Page told a Chamber of Commerce gathering in Portland “our model is broken and must be changed.”

Page was referring to Maine’s higher education business model. It wasn’t working; it wasn’t keeping up. The number of 15- to 19-year-olds was going down, as was the Maine Legislature’s appropriation for higher ed. The non-solution embraced by the university system’s administrators was to pump up tuition.

“We relied on tuition hikes to preserve our size, structure and silos,” Page said, “driving average annual tuition up by 363 percent” between 1989 and 2015. The steady increase from $1,646 a year to $7,622 had the predictable effect of driving away Maine students.

Decades of kicking the can down the road in order to preserve the status quo came to an end. Page and the Board of Trustees committed themselves and the higher ed community to cost consciousness and affordability. They froze tuition, increased grant and scholarship funding, eliminated the equivalent of 902 full-time university positions (thus capturing savings of $82 million) and then … they took the pledge.

They took the Pine Tree Pledge, a tuition break that stands to become a national model. Thanks to the Pine Tree Pledge, 4,077 Maine undergraduates — a quarter of the student body — attend university system campuses free of tuition and fees.

The pledge program, initiated in 2017, has been a godsend for qualifying students. Who is a qualifying student? That would be a student with demonstrated financial need. A student who would qualify for a federal Pell Grant would meet the Pine Tree Pledge criteria.

How’s it working out? Fall 2018 enrollment across the University of Maine system was up 2.5 percent. Applications for 2019 also are up.

The University of Maine at Augusta (UMA) leads the way. The UMA system anticipates enrolling a much larger entering class in September. The message of absolute affordability for the state’s neediest students is being heard.

The students at the University of Maine at Augusta (UMA), which has a location in Ellsworth at the Mill Mall, have benefited handsomely from the pledge. In the present semester, 1,125 UMA students are taking classes tuition-free. Many UMA students are non-traditionals: first-generation, low-income students, over the age of 24. Affordability and access are critically important to these older, working, motivated individuals. Many are supporting a family. The Pine Tree Pledge gives these and thousands of other students a chance to earn a college degree and take a shot at the American dream without participating in the American nightmare of college debt.

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