A Democratic lawmaker is proposed a tuition discount to reverse enrollment declines at the state's public universities.
In this Aug. 30, 2021, file photo, students walk across the University of Maine in Orono on the first day of classes. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Maine’s community colleges are seeing a boom in enrollment thanks to Gov. Janet Mills’ decision to make it free for recent high school graduates. But it’s come at a cost: the state’s university system is experiencing a comparable decrease in enrollment.

Some Democratic lawmakers are proposing legislation to make state universities just as appealing as community colleges — by providing a tuition discount.

“This specific proposal in LD 512 is meant to mirror the tuition waiver program now in place for community college students,” Democratic Sen. Mike Tipping told the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee during a public hearing Monday.

Tipping’s bill would offer a substantial reduction to the cost of a four-year degree. It would slash state university tuition in half for Maine high school students who graduate between 2023 and 2025. And it would also offer 50 percent tuition for one year for returning college students who have lived in the state for at least five years and are 30 or fewer credit hours from completing their degree.

Tipping told lawmakers that his proposal would simply expand a broadly supported policy idea. And those who favor the proposal say it’s only fair.

University of Maine System spokesperson Sam Warren told lawmakers that the number of students admitted to Maine’s universities but chose to enroll instead in a community college nearly doubled in just the first semester that the state offered free tuition.

“We maintain that long-term, increased enrollment of the community colleges should benefit our system as students transfer to earn their baccalaureate degree as expected by employers,” Warren said. “At the same time, there would be both individual and societal benefits if students who wish to attend our public universities are afforded the same state-subsidized opportunity to do so.”

Lydia Savage, a geography professor at the University of Southern Maine, told the committee she was one of those students. She’s a first generation college student from California who chose community college for her first two years of study because of the cost. But when she transferred as a junior to a four-year university, she felt she was at a disadvantage.

“I had no connection to faculty and students in my major or at the university,” she said. “Other juniors who had already been there were already at work in faculty labs, classrooms, studies, they were in the community. They had already established relationships with faculty mentors and other students. And they had established networks with internships and future employers. And this is a huge part of going to a four-year institution.”

Other supporters said that discounted university tuition would help reverse Maine’s declining workforce in lower-paid careers such as early childhood education, social work and teaching, where even a small amount of college debt can be insurmountable. The president of the Maine Education Association, Grace Leavitt, said Maine is facing a severe shortage of educators.

“This is indeed a nationwide crisis,” she said. “Some states are ahead of us in this effort, and we know that students who study at our universities of Maine and who do their student teaching here, they’re very likely to take positions right here in our state.”

No one testified publicly against the bill. And it drew support from a dozen economists who signed an open letter, including Michael Cauvel.

“There’s a lot of evidence that investment in public higher education is beneficial for students, beneficial for the economy, and offers a positive return on investment to taxpayers,” Cauvel said.

But just how much the discounted tuition proposal would cost taxpayers isn’t clear. A fiscal note has not yet been attached to the bill.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.