Chancellor Page’s 2019 State of the University System Address

14 MARCH 2019

President Jackson, Speaker Gideon, honorable members of the 129th Legislature, President Daigler, President Brennan, distinguished guests and friends: On behalf of the Board of Trustees, Boards of Visitors, Presidents, faculty, students, and staff of your public universities, I extend greetings and thank you for the opportunity to address you regarding the state of Maine’s public universities. I have good news to report.

I would like to begin by introducing representatives of the Board of Trustees and Boards of Visitors who are attending today from throughout the State, as well as our campus Presidents, student and faculty representatives to the Board of Trustees, and members of my senior staff. Please welcome them.

I want to thank you for your strong policy and fiscal support. We know that trust and confidence is something continually earned, and we are committed to earning your confidence every day by focusing on accessible, affordable, and quality education for our students and transparent accountability with you and with all Maine people.

I want to thank you for authorizing the facilities and infrastructure bond that was approved by the voters this past November. Dozens – hundreds – of people worked tirelessly to help pass this bond, and of those visiting here today I want especially to acknowledge our Boards of Visitors as well as Dana Connors of the State Chamber for their untiring advocacy on behalf of public education.

This is my fourth and final address to you as Chancellor. So in addition to reporting to you on our universities, I will offer, with a great deal of optimism, some thoughts about the role of education and Maine’s future. The word you will hear throughout is “opportunity”.

Two years ago in this forum, I spoke to you of breaking down walls, building partnerships, and creating opportunities for Maine students and Maine people. Since then, we’ve made important progress. Working together, working with our businesses and communities across the state, and working closely with you here in the Statehouse, Maine’s public universities have made higher education more affordable, more accessible, and more forward-looking.

Our guiding principle is One University. As One University we set our goals and align our resources in focused support of all Maine families, businesses and communities.

Under One University we have made our public institutions national leaders in affordability, ensuring a college degree is within reach of all Maine families.

  • Tuition over the last 5 years has increased an average of just 1.2% per year. Adjusted for inflation it has declined 3% during that same period.
  • Student debt is decreasing. Between 2013 and 2019 we increased institutional student financial aid 72% from $54,000,000 to $86,600,000. During that same period, our total student loans decreased 17.5%, with Pell-eligible students at four of our institutions attending free of tuition and mandatory fees. In 2016, the average University of Maine System graduate’s debt was $28,619 compared to an in-state average of $31,364 and a national average of $37,172. This is good, but it’s not good enough. I’ll return to this issue later.
  • In addition to having previously reduced our annual operating budget by an historic $80MM+, System operating costs have increased an average of just 1% per year for the last 10 years, again before inflation.

These facts show: the University of Maine System puts student affordability front-and-center.

With One University we are increasing educational access, and with access comes opportunity:

  • As I’ve reported to you before, in concert with the Community College System we have instituted the first comprehensive credit transfer program.
  • This past fall we enrolled 29,154 undergraduates, graduates and early college students, a 2.4% year-over-year increase. This is the largest increase of any public university system in New England.
  • With your support, in the last 5 years early college enrollment has increased 158% so that we now have more than 3,500 participating students.
  • Out-of-state enrollment has increased 44% over the last five years, a number that is especially important as we work to bring young people to Maine to live and build their careers

These facts show: the University of Maine System puts educational opportunity front-and-center.

As One University we work with businesses and industries statewide to address workforce needs and to catalyze economic growth.

  • Each year, Cooperative Extension serves more than 5000 businesses. This past year the University of Maine’s Office of Innovation and Economic Development partnered with more than 250 Maine businesses, with a similar number engaged at the University of Southern Maine. We are committed to setting up active partnerships with every major Maine industry and professional sector by 2020, as we have already done with nursing, engineering, the computer sciences, and other disciplines key to Maine’s economic health.
  • Last year businesses provided more than 1,350 paid internships for our students, including 187 placed with start-ups and other Maine companies innovating to bring new products to market through UMaine’s Innovate for Maine program. We are committed to extending this opportunity so that every University of Maine System student has experiential work opportunities, as we know these opportunities provide successful career pathways.
  • Last year, the University of Maine System leveraged more than $4 for every $1 dollar you invested in state-centered research through MEIF, developing new knowledge, technologies, and best practices for the benefit of Maine businesses and industries. Later this month, we will publish a strategic vision for increasing Maine-centered research so that, together with our private and non-profit partners, Maine can achieve the 3% GDP benchmark that is the nationally-recognized standard for an innovative, growing economy. I look forward to sharing this report with you in the coming weeks.

These facts show: the University of Maine System puts economic opportunity front-and-center.

One University has set us on the right path. It has changed us from a fragmented, often isolated federation of institutions to a single system working in aligned service to our students and all Maine people. It has shown that when we work together, we advance Maine.

Our state has many challenges that center on a declining demographic and an uncertain economy. Maine needs a bold, focused, comprehensive, bipartisan and long-term economic development plan with educational opportunity at its core. That is why I strongly support Governor Mills’s priority emphasis on developing just that plan. It must be bold, because business as usual has not delivered enough opportunity. It must be comprehensive because the path forward in Portland will differ in detail from the paths forward in Poland or Presque Isle. It must be long-term because success takes more time than a legislative session or even an Administration’s tenure, and for that reason alone it must be bipartisan.

I have spoken with Commissioner Johnson about how we can best assist in developing this plan. You can be sure that the full resources of the University of Maine System are ready and able to support your work in creating this roadmap for statewide success.

Let me say more about why education must be at the heart of this plan. Incorporating our research plan is one reason; R&D is a foundation of economic innovation and growth. But I’m going to focus here on people.

Education no longer starts at age six and ends twelve or sixteen years later. It is now a life-long endeavor that starts with pre-school and never ends. The National Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that someone entering the workforce today can expect to change employment twelve times before he or she retires. Even more to the point, everyone can expect to have to upgrade their skills on a regular basis, even to keep the same job.

Educational attainment is more than an individual opportunity, it must be a state priority. Right now just 42% of Maine people have a post-secondary degree or credential, a number far short of the 60% MaineSpark benchmark you have legislatively endorsed that is required to meet state workforce needs. Yet even if we were successful in getting 100% of our current K12 students a post-secondary credential we would only be halfway towards meeting this 60% target. We must close this gap, and doing so requires we provide more opportunities for all our people, especially working adults, than ever before. Those states that have been most successful in doing this – Tennessee, for example – have been successful because their political, business and educational leadership have made educational opportunities for adults a top state priority. We must do the same. The 60% MaineSpark goal must be at the core of the State’s development plan.

The challenges here are real. A working parent in Rumford or Rome cannot move to a campus, is unlikely to be able to take classes on anything like a traditional schedule, and requires very different kinds of advising and support than a recent high school graduate does. We have to meet these folks where they are because when we do, they will succeed.

Let me tell you about UMA student Emily Christiansen. Emily is a Maine native and graduate of Hall-Dale High School in Farmingdale. Like so many of our young people, following 9/11 she answered the call of duty and enlisted in the US Army, becoming a Blackhawk helicopter mechanic. Honorably discharged, Emily has worked in various law enforcement roles for the past 12 years, and is now a proud member of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office. Emily understands how education creates opportunity. So, while meeting all her personal responsibilities as a wife and mother as well as her professional responsibilities to her employer, Emily enrolled as a UMA online student where she will graduate with her AA in justice studies this summer. Following graduation, she plans to go on to obtain her BA with the goal of attending the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. Emily has chosen a career dedicated to public service; she represents the best of Maine. Our priority must be that all the Emilys of Maine have the opportunity to realize their goals of building stronger Maine communities. Emily is with us today along with her boss and mentor, Sheriff Ken Mason. Please join me in welcoming Emily, congratulating her on her many accomplishments, and thanking her for her extraordinary commitment to serving our nation, state, and people.

One element in meeting working adults like Emily where they are is adequate broadband. I know this topic is under your active consideration. I’ll add only this: broadband access – especially rural broadband access – is a matter of economic necessity and social equity.

Student success follows many paths. While adult learners need ready access to quality educational opportunities, they do not always need degrees. An accountant in Skowhegan may want to expand his financial skills to advance professionally, but he may not need a degree to do so. He does need confirmation of his expanded skills in a form that is meaningful to him, his employers, and his profession. The University System is therefore expanding how we validate educational attainment to include credentialing, badging, and other emerging methods in a way that is most responsive to working people and employers. Expect this to be an important way in which we work to close the attainment gap.

We now have several years’ good experience of increasingly close collaborations between Maine’s three public higher educational institutions as evidenced by credit transfer, programmatic alignment, and other cooperative initiatives. Yet if public education is to be truly efficient and effective, we must break down that final bureaucratic barrier between secondary and post-secondary systems, a barrier that has long outlived its usefulness. Commissioner Makin and I have spoken about this and we are in strong agreement because there really is only one story to tell here: How education advances all Maine people, whatever their age and wherever they are.

Early college is one way that story is developing. Maine enjoys an enviable high school graduation rate but lags substantially in post-secondary attainment. One of our most effective programs to combat this trend is early college. I’ve already reviewed some of the numbers with you. We know that by giving Maine high school students the opportunity to do college-level work, more will pursue higher education, they will be better prepared academically, more confident in their own abilities, and more likely to complete their degrees and enter the workforce with less debt. When I last addressed you, I said that with your support we would work to make early college opportunities available in every high school throughout the state with a next-stage goal of enrolling 20% of all high school juniors and seniors. I have very good news to report. This year, early college is available in 129 of 137 high schools (that’s 94%), 3,527 students are taking courses, and we are on schedule to award 20,935 credit hours, a 19.1% increase over just the last academic year, all fully transferable into our institutions. If these credits all transferred into one of our universities, the savings to our students and their families would be more than $5,000,000.

The four of us –  Commissioner Makin, President Daigler, President Brennan, and I  – believe that we best serve our students when we work together. Towards this end, we are forming a liaison team drawn from our senior leadership that will meet regularly to ensure we are actively creating a more integrated and seamless public educational system. We look forward to briefing the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on concrete steps we are taking to achieve this strategic vision of a seamless approach to public education.  

Throughout all these discussions looms the question of student debt. Debt robs opportunity, and despite our progress in this area there is more that needs to be done.

I know this issue is important to all of you and to the Governor, as it is to us. Please remember that debt-reduction is not the same as debt-forgiveness. Both are important, but they serve different ends. Debt-forgiveness, typically worked through tax policy, is an important tool for workforce attraction and retention. But a student graduating with debt must go where the jobs are that can discharge that debt. So accruing debt in the first place puts our rural economies at particular risk. The best way to control debt is never to take it on in the first place. Your public higher-ed institutions are good at controlling costs and reducing debt. We’ve shown that. Work closely with us; we are committed to working with you right now to find the right combinations of policies and practices that will best serve our students and our communities. Working together, Maine can be a national leader providing quality, accessible, relevant, and affordable education to all our people. It can be a centerpiece of our State plan. It can be a great attractor. The winners will be Maine people, Maine businesses, and Maine communities.

Towards all these ends, I have three budgetary asks. First, the Governor’s budget includes a 3% increase in Education & General funding for each of the two biennial years. E&G is by far the largest form of State support for our basic operations including classroom instruction, scholarships, and general maintenance. The budgeted increase will enable us to keep pace with the State Economist’s cost of living estimate and is consistent with our pledge not to burden Maine students and taxpayers with an unsustainable expenditure base.

The other two requests speak directly to the priorities I outlined earlier. I ask you to support the Governor’s budget request of $4.1MM over the biennium, identified to support adult educational attainment, along with a small appropriation of $430,000 over the biennium to support New Ventures Maine in their highly successful outreach to adult learners and entrepreneurs. These investments will be used to develop enhanced navigator models specifically designed to assist place-bound adult learners and to advance new and updated degree and credentialed programs tailored to meet student and employer needs.

Third, I ask for your support for the Governor’s budget request of $3.1MM over the biennium to sustain our progress in early college.

These are all investments that repay Maine taxpayers with economic opportunity and stronger communities.

I will be retiring this summer after the Legislative session has ended. I began seven years ago with the promise that we would be good stewards working on behalf of Maine families and Maine taxpayers, that we would expand opportunities, and that we would always put students and state first. We’ve made good progress, and you should be confident that the work we have started will grow stronger and be even more successful in the coming years; I’m leaving your universities on a good path and in great hands.

I have had no greater honor than the opportunity to serve Maine in this role. I want to thank you for everything you have done for our students and universities. It has been a great pleasure working with all of you. We share the deepest commitment to our people and our state. As I have said each time I’ve had the privilege of addressing you, our success will always be measured by the success of Maine people. It remains that simple. Thank you.
Click here for a link to a video archive of the Chancellor’s address.