University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel Malloy (left) sits next to the chair of the system's board of trustees, Trish Riley, during a board meeting at the University of Maine at Presque Isle on Sept. 12, 2022. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

The lowest enrollment in recent memory is forcing Maine’s public universities to close a $5 million gap in their current budget and setting them up for an “exceedingly worrisome” financial picture next year, according to the University of Maine System’s lead trustee.

Closing the gap means that universities across the system will be forced to keep some vacant teaching positions open, dig into relief and reserve funds, and develop more targeted marketing to drive up the number of transfer students in the spring.

The University of Maine System earlier this year anticipated a 4 percent decrease in enrollment, but the official student count on Oct. 15 was down 5 percent from last fall, representing a decline of about 1,000 students. This fall’s enrollment across the state’s seven universities is 24,808 students.

The system has so far been able to maneuver through this year’s round of budget changes, but next year will likely be a difficult budget season, Trish Riley, chair of the university system’s board of trustees, said Wednesday during a meeting of the board’s finance, facilities and technology committee.

“I think what we’re looking at in ’24 is exceedingly worrisome,” she said.

The budget deficits — which are larger than the system initially predicted — will hit each of the university system’s campuses differently, with the most significant effects being felt at smaller campuses.

The University of Maine at Augusta, Fort Kent and Presque Isle and the University of Southern Maine are facing a combined deficit of $5.4 million, according to data presented at Wednesday’s meeting.

The University of Maine at Fort Kent’s deficit equals 11 percent of its total budget, President Deborah Hedeen said.

Ryan Low, the university system’s vice chancellor for finance, said the system expected to have to make some budgetary adjustments, but that they are still difficult to make.

“It’s always challenging when you’re in a reduction mode. There are not tons of options, but we feel like we’ve done a pretty good job of addressing 2023,” Low said. “But it certainly means our 2024 budget development, we’re expecting that to be a challenge.”

In Fort Kent, Hedeen said the university has held off on filling some faculty positions and will use about $800,000 in COVID-19 relief funds to fill the gap.

Similarly, the University of Southern Maine will dig into the $1 million in COVID relief funds it has left. USM also expects some budgetary relief from the fact that its dorms are more than 100 percent full, which brings in additional room and board revenue.

The University of Maine at Augusta plans a more aggressive marketing campaign to appeal to spring transfer students in hopes of making up enrollment, and revenue, losses in the next semester.

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is a reporter covering Old Town, Orono and the surrounding areas. A recent graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he's worked for Vermont Public Radio, The...