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What UMaine can teach UMass

A bicyclist passed by Stevens Hall on the University of Maine’s Orono campus.
A bicyclist passed by Stevens Hall on the University of Maine’s Orono campus. (Fred Field for The Boston Globe)

Some Massachusetts high school students may learn about Orono, Maine, for the first time this winter. The town is home to the flagship campus of the University of Maine, which recently said it would start charging qualified students from Massachusetts the same tuition and fees they would pay to attend the University of Massachusetts Amherst — a savings of about $15,000 off the usual sticker price for nonresidents. Students from some other states — including Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont — will be able to get similar discounts at UMaine Orono.

The UMaine Flagship Match Program is a smart marketing tool that also has the potential to strengthen the region’s public higher-education grid. It’s a meaningful attempt to address the critical problem of college unaffordability, an issue that has been pushed to the background of the presidential campaign. Just last month, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that student loan debt nationwide has topped an impossible-to-fathom $1.2 trillion.

UMaine Flagship Match is being introduced in response to a decrease in the number of young people who are deciding to stay in Maine, and a projected drop in the number of high school graduates across the Northeast over the next eight years. Undoubtedly, lower costs will make the Maine university more attractive to Massachusetts students who previously haven’t considered it because of the premium on tuition and fees for out-of-state students. A Massachusetts resident enrolled at UMaine Orono this year has to pay about $29,000, and that doesn’t include room and board. Two-tier pricing has put the school at a competitive disadvantage with UMass Amherst, less expensive public schools outside of New England, and even private colleges that offer more name-brand cachet and generous financial aid packages. The Flagship Match establishes Orono as a reasonably priced state-school option for Massachusetts students who want to remain in New England.

But the program has the potential to do more than help individual students looking to cross state lines for their education. It might spur the UMass Amherst and other public universities across New England to offer the same kind of price breaks. That would expand opportunities for students throughout the region to apply to majors and speciality programs not available where they live. An existing discount plan, the New England Regional Student Program, already does that on a limited scale.

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An end to the two-tier tuition system also could help build a more robust mix of students with varied backgrounds — an important part of the college experience. For instance, only 22 percent of UMass Amherst’s undergraduates now come from other states.

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Phasing out nonresident tuition at UMass Amherst might decrease revenue, at least in the short-term, and would pose other challenges, such as a need for more housing. But it’s in keeping with the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education’s mission “to provide accessible, affordable, relevant, and rigorous programs that adapt to meet changing individual and societal needs for education and employment.” A more regional approach to obtaining a public college degree is worth exploring.