It’s hard to sell tickets on a sinking ship

By Stephen L. Weber

Why are enrollments dropping in the University of Maine System? Why are so many of Maine’s college-going students leaving our state for their higher education? Why are some University of Maine System residence halls standing empty?

Is it price? No.

Average tuition in the University of Maine System is $7,622 — 62 percent of the average tuition ($12,327) for other New England public four-year universities. If it were an issue of price, one would have to explain why the University of Maine (Orono), with the highest tuition and mandatory fees ($10,606), is gaining enrollment. Consider that our System’s “captains” have frozen the cost of “passage” for four years in a row, and still fewer “passengers” purchase tickets. What could be the problem? Perhaps it is hard to sell tickets on a sinking ship.

Do these young people want to leave our state? No. Very few are eager to leave Maine. They love this place, even if it does not love them.

Is it that they don’t like the outcome of a higher education experience in Maine — a healthier, more prosperous life for them and for our state, where each graduate can expect to earn over an additional million dollars in life-time income? No. The destination is fine; there is just little reason to believe that the “USS Maine System” will arrive at that destination.

None of these “explanations” get at the problem of declining enrollments. The University of Maine System is sinking under its own weight and pulling its universities down with it.

Some potential students want passage to a particular port — and the university no longer sells tickets to that destination from its home port.

Some potential passengers have seen the ship, a rusting hulk of its former self with almost a half billion (yes, billion) dollars in deferred maintenance. Care to climb on board? Watch out for that falling ceiling, those potholes in the parking lot, the wiring that was inadequate in the 20th century, let alone the 21st. It’s hard to believe this is a state-of-the-art laboratory when there is a gang plug in the corner.

And, to make things worse, the ship leaks. Not just is water coming in, but passengers are leaking out in the form of low retention and poor graduation rates.

And, of course, there is the system PR relentlessly promising less university. “Think things are bad now,” they shout, “Wait; they will be worse.” Indeed, the System even tried an ad campaign to bribe passengers to board the University of Southern Maine, while it simultaneously proclaimed the campus to be sinking. Is it any wonder that inquiries about ticket sales decreased 10 percent?

Nor is it a surprise that applications are down when the System launches a strategy grounded in the proposition that “You can’t have that, but if you could, it would be cheap.” Want new faculty? You can’t have that, but if you could, they would be cheap. Want books in your library; equipment in your laboratories; safe, well-maintained buildings? You can’t have that, but if you could, they would be cheap.

Until Maine and its University trustees decide that the university is important enough to fund and price properly, until they show (not say) that they believe in the ship and its future, why would anyone want to board? Just because it is cheap? No way.

These are smart young people who are making an investment in their futures and potentially that of our state. They are betting their, or their family’s, hard-earned money and four or more years of their lives. Who would want to make that investment when the ship’s captains are pledging that its “diploma of passage” will be worth less five, 10, 20 years from now. (And, incidentally, when the “diplomas of passage” from other university fleets are gaining value every year.)

It is probably not a good idea to post an admission sign proclaiming, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” — unless, of course, you are selling passage on a “Ship of Fools.”

Rather than try to bribe passengers onto a sinking ship, why not right the ship? Rather than cutting even more crew, why not show that they and the ship have a future? Instead of promising passengers that their “Diploma of Passage” will be worth less in five years, show them that it will be worth more. Instead of hanging out a sign saying “This ship is doomed,” why not hang one that proudly proclaims this ship caries the future of Maine and its most important cargo?

Stephen L. Weber is president emeritus of San Diego State University and resides in Hancock.

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