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    New Hampshire's college graduates carried the heaviest debt load in the country in 2010, according to an annual report by The Project on Student Debt last week. This coupled with tuition increases far greater than the average family income in the state in the past 30 years could "gobble up" 70 to 75 percent of an average family's annual income, said Mark Huddleston, president of the University of New Hampshire. These factors could lead to students forgoing a college education or leaving the state for college.
Monday, November 14, 2011

Education costlier, funds fewer, future cloudy

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a six-part series examining various aspects of the “New Hampshire Advantage” and whether the Granite State has been able to maintain its competitiveness in these areas.

What is the price tag on higher education in New Hampshire?

“The average cost per year is equivalent to going out and buying a BMW every year and driving it off a cliff,” said Mark Huddleston, president at the University of New Hampshire.

The rising cost of tuition at the state’s colleges and universities, which was worsened by state budget cuts this summer, poses a serious threat to “the New Hampshire Advantage.”

In July, the state Legislature slashed higher education funding nearly in half, the largest single cut to a public higher-education system in American history.

“It was a staggering number to have to take on board,” Huddleston said. “We can’t pull rabbits out of a hat. We’re very lean at this point.”

The state didn’t stop there.

Funding for the Community College System of New Hampshire was cut 15 percent. The Postsecondary Education Commission was eliminated, and the Granite Scholars Program was also cut, erasing all state scholarship aid.

Cuts by the state forced tuition hikes of nearly 10 percent at UNH, Keene State College and Plymouth State University. The cost of credit hours at community colleges increased as well.

New Hampshire higher education was crippled at the chopping block this summer. Tom Horgan, president and CEO of the New Hampshire College & University Council, believes the vaunted “New Hampshire Advantage” could be next.

“All of the things that make up the New Hampshire advantage – low crime rate, the healthiest state in the nation, relatively low unemployment – all of those things are directly tied to the fact that we’re a highly educated state,” he said. “All of those things are in jeopardy if we don’t have educated citizens.”

Crumbling before cuts

It would be difficult for any state to overcome such a deep cut, but New Hampshire already dug itself a hole.

Its college graduates carried the heaviest debt load in the country in 2010, according to the annual report released by The Project on Student Debt last week.

New Hampshire students had an average of $31,048 in student debt upon graduation in 2010, and 74 percent of students leave school with at least some debt. At Rivier College in Nashua, the average debt load among 2010 graduates was $36,462.

Tuition has also increased far more than average family income in New Hampshire over the past 30 years, Huddleston said, which creates a big problem for families.

“The gap between the two is what worries me; that’s what keeps me up at night,” he said. “It’s not sustainable.”

If nothing changes in that growth over the next eight to 10 years, Huddleston said, college tuition threatens to eat up 70 to 75 percent of the average family’s annual income.

The numbers are troubling on their own, said Horgan, but even more so given the fact they preclude the high tuition increases at many schools for the 2011-12 academic year.

Reasons are mounting for students to forgo a college education or leave New Hampshire to do it, Horgan said.

Higher-education enrollment in New Hampshire was highest in the country over the past five years – up 28 percent – but the state has spent 13 percent less on each student since 2005, according to State Higher Education Finance.

State funding could be stretched even thinner in the coming years, too, as 30 percent more students have graduated from New Hampshire high schools in the past decade.

“We continue to encourage students to leave New Hampshire,” Horgan said. “And if we send our own young people out of state, the likelihood that they’ll come back is diminished significantly.”

Demographic trends across the country already show a rapidly aging country, with New Hampshire among the state leaders.

The Granite State is the sixth-oldest in the U.S. and growing older at a rate faster than the national average. New Hampshire’s 65-and-over population percentage is expected to almost double in the next 20 years, from 12 percent to 21 percent, according to Steve Norton, executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies.

The older population will be a “double whammy” to higher education, Horgan said, because the number of K-12 students will decrease and, in turn, fewer New Hampshire students would land at colleges and universities. .

“We’re suffering from not having a strategic plan about the future of New Hampshire, and part of that plan should be and must be what’s the future of higher education in the state,” he said. “All of us have a shared interest in that conversation.”

‘New, creative’ solutions

Last year, 129 UNH faculty members voted “no confidence” in Huddleston after he emphasized the need to change the university’s traditional spending path.

Despite the lack of support from professors, Huddleston is now pushing harder for those changes in response to the state cuts.

“In the higher education space, there are forces of disruptive innovation at work,” he said. “The traditional institution has to change how they do things. We have to do what we do at lower costs. It’s always hard to change, but I think it’s inevitable.”

Huddleston pointed to Western Governors University, an online school, that charges students $5,000 every year and students receive a degree in 39 months.

“It’s not comparable to the UNH experience, but those forces require all of us to think more creatively,” he said.

UNH is also trying to grow its graduate and certificate programs, which would increase revenue and the size of the student population, and it is hoping to find smarter and better uses of physical buildings on campus.

“They’re all empty most of the time,” Huddleston said. “It seems like a crowded place in class on a Wednesday afternoon, but most of the year, the classes are empty.”

Sister Paula Buley, president at Rivier College in Nashua, said higher education has to be flexible going forward, especially in location and time of degree completion. Online learning has to be a university asset, not an afterthought.

Horgan also highlighted the need for “nontraditional programs that lower the cost for students.”

“The key word is flexibility,” Buley said. “Banks were open nine to three 15 years ago; now it’s ubiquitous banking. Education is changing in that regard, too.”

Education ‘must be’ priority

President Lucille Jordan at Nashua Community College said the school has reached a “breaking point.”

Fall enrollments this year show an increase in students, but a decrease in credit hours, she said.

The students, many of whom also work full-time, can only afford a certain amount, Jordan said.

Tuition has increased each of the past four years, from $175 per credit hour in 2008-09 to $210 this year, while enrollment has increased from just 450 students 10 years ago to over 2,500 today.

The trend will actually force costs to rise for the college, Jordan said, when they’re already fiscally tight.

J. Bonnie Newman, interim chancellor at Community College System of New Hampshire, said the state’s community colleges provide an “important gateway” to successful careers.

But the cuts have jeopardized New Hampshire’s educated workforce, which is no small problem.

“If New Hampshire is going to remain competitive, we need a highly skilled, well-educated workforce,” she said.

Huddleston agreed. He said an educated workforce “doesn’t happen by accident” and New Hampshire higher education needs help from the state, and from others, to restore its reputation.

Residents and businesses need to speak up and advocate for education, Horgan said. When the state eliminated $4 million in scholarships to students, the business community was “silent,” he said.

Families and students want to be here, Huddleston said, but if New Hampshire continues to trivialize education, the rising cost of higher education will send them elsewhere.

“We live in a place that is the envy of the rest of America,” he said. “The quality of life here is really high.

“But if people can’t afford it, they can’t afford it. They’ll find other alternatives.

“It’s nice to afford a Rolex, but a Timex keeps time just as well.”

Cameron Kittle can be reached at 594-6523 or ckittle@nashuatelegraph.com.

Also check out Kittle (@Telegraph_CamK) on Twitter.