Some good news on tuition front

This year marked the third time since 2006 that New Hampshire’s system of seven community colleges succeeded in not raising tuition. The colleges should be congratulated for their accomplishment.

But unless the Legislature, which cut the system’s budget by 20 percent last year, increases state support for higher education, the colleges should not be expected to do it again.

Perhaps because it ranks last in the nation in the percentage of members with at least a bachelor’s degree, the New Hampshire Legislature has not shown that it values the state’s system of higher education.

Its near 50 percent cut in support for the state’s four-year institutions was the deepest in the land. The cuts came in a poor economy and at a time when a growing number of young people are wrongly beginning to believe that a college education isn’t worth it.

College is expensive. Higher education costs range from several thousand dollars per year for students who live at home and attend a community college to nearly $60,000 per year at some four-year institutions. That’s led to enormous student debt loads – New Hampshire ranks No. 1 in that category – and an increase in student debt-
related bankruptcies.

Pressure on traditional four-year, liberal arts colleges has been increasing. One, Chester College in southern New Hampshire, was forced to close this year for want of enough students.

New England, as a percentage, has more four-year residential colleges that any other region in the nation. More of its struggling small colleges can be expected to close. More students will turn to community colleges, whose enrollments are exploding.

Community colleges have a more targeted mission than four-year schools. They are not the training schools of old – though they do prepare students for specific careers in fields like nursing – but they’re more focused on meeting the needs of local employers.

Business needs students who have not just learned to think critically and communicate effectively in traditional liberal arts classes, but also have acquired the technical skills they’ll need on the job. To get them, more companies are entering into partnerships with the community college system and offering, for example, internships to students who can earn credit for their on-the-job experience.

To meet the needs of employers, the system has embarked on a path to double the percentage of students who graduate with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math by 2025. That’s smart planning.

Online learning is changing higher education at all levels. An increased reliance on distance education allowed the system to share faculty between several community colleges. That helped the system keep costs down.

More students are enrolling in a four-year college or university as juniors and save money, in some cases tens of thousands of dollars, by attending a community college first. When they do, the system’s chancellor, Ross Gittell says, they perform as well or better than traditional four-year students.

If community colleges increase tuition because demand from students from well-off families has increased, students with economic disadvantages will be crowded out. That must not happen. The Legislature must do its share toward keeping tuition reasonable.

One thing that should happen – but won’t unless voters demand it – is a decision to move federal funding away from the for-profit colleges that now soak up a huge chunk of federally guaranteed student loan and grant money.

Many of them turn high profits, have low graduation rates and mire students in debt. Congress should steer much more of its higher education support to public colleges and universities, which are being crippled by state budget cuts.

And legislators should recognize that if they don’t support their state’s public institutions, their young people will leave and their economies will decline.

– Concord Monitor