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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Rising costs of higher education, solutions major story for students in 2012

DURHAM – College tuition bills grew exponentially for students around the state in 2012, after historic cuts to state funding for higher education in 2011 placed a burden on the state’s public institutions.

And as students struggled to find an affordable path to higher education, lawmakers and education officials debated the best way to solve the state’s growing problem with its institutions’
accessibility. ...

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DURHAM – College tuition bills grew exponentially for students around the state in 2012, after historic cuts to state funding for higher education in 2011 placed a burden on the state’s public institutions.

And as students struggled to find an affordable path to higher education, lawmakers and education officials debated the best way to solve the state’s growing problem with its institutions’
accessibility.

As 2013 begins, university leaders say they’re confident the funding situation will improve in the new year. Still, funding the state’s public institutions is not a simple issue, and is likely to remain on the forefront of New Hampshire politics for some time.

For every person who lives in New Hampshire, the state contributes $63.19 to support public higher education. That’s the lowest rate in the country. The state that ranks 49th, Arizona, offers nearly double what New Hampshire does, with $125.64 in state appropriations per capita.

The University System of New Hampshire presents that argument – a lack of state funding for higher education, highlighted by a unprecedented 49 percent cut in 2011 – as the key reason for rising tuition costs in recent years.

However, the state increased its appropriation 65 percent over 15 years, from 1994-2009, and tuition costs still soared.

During that period at UNH, costs went up 147 percent for in-state students and 113 percent for out-of-state students. At Plymouth State University and Keene State College, the 15-year increases were more than 130 percent for in-state tuition and more than 100 percent for out-of-state.

State legislators point to high administrative and faculty salaries, on top of expensive construction projects, as examples of the public universities’ out-of-control spending.

UNH President Mark Huddleston earned $333,658.54 in 2011 – the highest-paid public employee in New Hampshire. Coaches Dick Umile and Sean McDonnell, who lead UNH’s hockey and football teams, respectively, each earned upward of $250,000 last year. In all, 18 administrators and eight faculty members at UNH took home more than $200,000 in 2011. Dozens of other professors and staff have six-figure salaries across UNH, Keene State, Plymouth State and Granite State colleges.

Still, the university system spends less than 5 percent of its budget on administrative overhead, or about $40 million of its $742 million operating expenses in 2011. And that was when the state appropriation was $100 million, before the massive cuts took effect last summer.

USNH Chancellor Ed MacKay said the university system made up for about 80 percent of the funding loss through staffing and administrative cuts. Much of the rest, however, fell to students.

This fall, the “sticker price” at UNH was $26,186 for in-state students and $38,646 for out-of-staters. That includes tuition, fees, and room and board costs; it does not account for scholarships or grants.

And the rising tuition rates have far outpaced increases in family incomes, forcing students and parents to borrow more. In 2010 and again in 2011, Granite State college graduates carried the highest debt load of any state in the country.

But while 2011 was a year of rising costs for many students, it was also a year that saw myriad ideas to aid the state’s struggling university system.

Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan made education a focus of her campaign, and tied it directly to her economic plan. Hassan vowed to support the restoration of funding to the University System of New Hampshire, and said she would encourage the system’s institution to work more closely together, pooling resources and serving as research hubs that could drive revenue.

USNH officials, meanwhile, offered legislators a deal: restore funding to the system and in-state tuition at all four of the state’s public higher education institutions will freeze for two years.

In November, college and university officials presented their plans to a legislative budget committee. What will come of the proposal is likely to be a big story of 2013, as legislators get down to work on crafting the state’s budget.

With Democrats once again leading the state house, higher education officials are seeing a bright light at the end of the tunnel.

“Gov.-elect Hassan has made restoration of our funding a priority, and we’re confident that we’ll have the opportunity to talk to her and other legislative leaders about the importance of higher education and the economy in this state, and why that’s a sound investment,” MacKay said last month.

Danielle Curtis can be reached at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashua
telegraph.com. Also follow Curtis
on Twitter (Telegraph_DC).