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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Administrators warn House budget cuts would make college unaffordable for N.H. students

CONCORD – Higher education administrators warned Monday that House-approved cuts to state aid could put two- and four-year colleges financially out of reach for most in-state graduates.

Neither the University System of New Hampshire nor Community College System executives would speculate on how high tuition would need to be raised to cope with the reductions.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Morse, R-Salem, made clear he didn’t want the public hearing to turn into a doomsday forecast on what would happen if the Senate did not restore some state aid.

“Blaming it on the Legislature is not productive at all,” Morse said. “We need to work hard to see how we can restore some of this funding, which is difficult at best.”

Gov. John Lynch proposed cutting aid to both college systems by 5 percent a year.

Lynch, cut community college funds by $7.2 million over two years and the four-year college funds by $10 million over the same period.

The House of Representatives went much further, cutting the two-year schools $18.7 million over the next two years and the four-year campuses $90 million.

Community College Trustee Chairman Paul Holloway said if endorsed, the House spending level would equal what the seven-school network got in 1992.

“That budget amounts to closing two campuses; the House’s budget will deny access to people who need it the most,” Holloway said. “People will not be able to afford our schools. New Hampshire will lose its edge.”

Later, Holloway stressed that trustees would not close two campuses but that the cuts were equivalent to shrinking the system by this much.

Commissioner Richard Gustafson said the biggest concern with such a cut is that it would force cutting back on popular offerings and raise in-state tuition that is already the second highest in the country, ranking slightly lower than Vermont.

Every $1 million in lost state aid to community colleges equals a 1.6 percent increase in tuitions.

Gustafson noted it’s much cheaper for New Hampshire residents to attend two-year colleges in Massachusetts as an out-of-stater than it is to go here.

USNH Chancellor Edward MacKay said if the House cut stands, it would be the first time in 25 years that state aid to the four-year campuses declined at all from one year to the next.

MacKay, college presidents and trustees repeatedly said they weren’t looking for the $100 million budget they’ve had the past two years or even the $95 million that Lynch would give them.

“We will work with you in any way you see fit to deal with this,” said Edward Dupont, USNH trustee chairman and former Senate president. “We know what is coming, and we just ask that you work with us and come up with a number that we can manage.”

Students from the University of New Hampshire, Keene State College and Plymouth State University all appeared with college administrators to plead their case.

UNH President Mark Huddleston said his flagship campus is ready to pare spending over the next several years and modernize the four-year campus for a 21st century student population that is different in many ways than those who have enrolled in the past.

“I am asking you to give us time,” Huddleston urged. “The House proposed cuts are so disproportionate and so drastic.”

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com.