A green bench on the University of Maine campus with students in the background
Students mill about on the University of Maine's Orono campus on Nov. 3. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

Two more of Maine’s public universities will have to close large budget gaps before the academic year is finished, as low enrollment creates an increasingly bleak budget picture for the University of Maine System.

Both the University of Maine and the University of Maine at Farmington are still calculating the final figures but expect to have to close seven-figure budget gaps as the University of Maine System continues to reel from lower-than-expected enrollment this fall, according to Ryan Low, the university system’s chief financial officer. 

The expected budget gaps in Orono and Farmington follow news last month that the universities of Maine at Augusta, Presque Isle and Fort Kent as well as the University of Southern Maine had budget gaps totaling $5 million for the current academic year.

The University of Maine System’s board of trustees on Monday approved recommendations to close the gaps at those four campuses, which included keeping some vacant teaching positions open, digging into relief and reserve funds, and developing more targeted marketing to drive up transfer student recruitment. 

UMaine and UMF haven’t yet outlined their strategies for closing the expected gaps.

At UMF, the belt-tightening would follow a round of painful cuts last academic year that saw the university lose 18 professors — nearly half its faculty — due to position eliminations and early retirements.

The university system is taking in less revenue as a result of lower-than-expected enrollment this fall. The drop matches a national trend of fewer students nationally enrolling in college during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it complicates budgeting because of the loss of revenue from fewer students.

The 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 during a trustees committee meeting in October.

It is a fairly regular practice to update and adjust budgets midway through any given financial year, but it doesn’t make the task any less difficult, Low said.

“On some of our campuses as much as 80 percent of our costs are people, and the lowest amount, it’s still well over 50 percent — closer to 60 percent at a place like UMaine in Orono,” Low said. “It’s really difficult to find an ongoing budget reduction because almost everything is people-oriented.” 

Mid-year budget changes are meant to be one-time fixes, Low said. 

As the universities turn their sights to budgeting for the next academic year, a major factor will be the amount of state funding newly reelected Gov. Janet Mills plans to include in her budget proposal that she expects to bring before the new Legislature this winter.

The University of Maine System requested a 12 percent increase over its current subsidy level, but the system needs some indication of how much it could get before universities start planning, Low said.

“If you go out and build a budget at 12 percent and then you get 9 percent … on one hand, you’re incredibly grateful,” Low said. “On the other hand, now you have to go out and make cuts in a budget that wasn’t even finalized.”

Another factor that may affect campus budgets in the months to come is a newly signed agreement between each of the seven universities and the University of Maine School of Law that’s meant to firm up how they share revenue when students take courses from multiple system schools — which is part of the idea behind the university system’s unique unified accreditation that paves the way for more resource-sharing among the universities. 

The agreement defines how two campuses can share courses and offers a framework academic departments at different campuses can use in place of separate agreements that vary from department to department, Low said. 

“It’s absolutely a huge deal,” Low said. “It doesn’t mean that you can’t deviate from that based on special circumstances between two unique programs. But it’s really hard if you have 50 of these arrangements going on across the university system. Imagine trying to put together 50 different revenue-sharing agreements. Things would just get crazy really, really fast.” 

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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...