NH’s community colleges in capable hands

When our editorial board meets with politicians, business leaders and newsmakers to dissect the issues of the day, it’s not unusual for some of our requests for data – budget numbers, percentages, etc. – to be met with a polite “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

And that’s certainly understandable, given we don’t provide a list of prepared questions in advance in order to keep the sessions as informal and conversational as possible.

So we were struck last week when, during our meeting with the new chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire, we found it difficult to keep up with the mountain of statistics coming our way.

That must be what happens when you invite an economist to discuss educational policy.

Truth be told, that’s not the only reason we were impressed by Ross Gittell, who took over as chancellor of the state’s community colleges Feb. 1.

Nor was it his extensive credentials: degrees in economics, business and public policy from some of the nation’s premier universities; 20 years as an economics professor at the University of New Hampshire Whittemore School of Business and Economics; a longtime vice president and forecast manager for the New England Economic Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to objective economic analysis.

No, what stood out for us was his clear understanding of the mission for the seven-college system and what must be done to achieve it.

“We’re really focused on educating and training people for the workplace,” he told us. “The community colleges are a bridge to economic opportunity for a lot of students we serve.”

That means not only knowing the needs of New Hampshire businesses today, but also being nimble enough to respond to the changing needs of tomorrow.

But that can’t happen without shedding the longstanding stigma associated with two-year community colleges, which are seen by many as the poor stepchild to the more traditional four-year colleges and universities.

For Gittell, that stigma will remain until the community college system is able to convince prospective students and their parents of the many advantages it has to offer. To wit:

The schools are more affordable and accessible than their four-year counterparts. Based on a full course load of 16 credits per semester, for example, tuition next year will be $6,720 at Nashua Community College versus $13,500 at UNH – less than half.

Credits earned at the community-college level are transferable to the state’s four-year universities, which means students can earn their degrees in four years while shaving thousands of dollars off their student loans.

The curriculum is closely aligned with the needs of the state’s business community, which can only be an advantage when it comes time to look for a job upon graduation.

And in order to ensure that students are exposed to the latest information, Gittell said instructors are being encouraged to invite today’s leaders of business and industry into the classroom to share their perspective directly with students.

Still, Gittell is intelligent enough to realize that community colleges aren’t for everyone and that it will take a long time before the stigma associated with them becomes a distant memory.

But based on our admittedly short meeting with the data-spouting chancellor, we are optimistic the system’s board of trustees tapped the right person for this important job.