NH must cut college costs, strengthen workforce

In order to take the next step forward for New Hampshire’s economy, our next governor must make it a top state priority to cut college costs, cut student debt and strengthen our workforce. I will.

To do so, we must transform our state higher education system as a whole – from career and technical education in high schools to community colleges, four-year degrees, and job training – with a clear vision: lower costs, cut debt, and boost workplace relevance.

In the decades since I put myself through college on student loans and two part-time jobs, the cost of college has nearly doubled. Today, high student debt rates – including the highest in the nation here in New Hampshire – mean our young people are starting families later in life, buying homes less often and creating their own businesses with less frequency than their parents. It’s holding back our entire economy.

New Hampshire’s in-state tuition is also the highest in the nation, and our high school graduates seeking college leave our state faster than any other state except New Jersey. Meanwhile, 3 percent unemployment means too many job postings go unfilled, holding back our businesses from faster growth.

Higher education innovation isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but I know from my own work that we can take the next step forward for our state. Three years ago I left Stonyfield Yogurt, where I was a business manager, to help launch Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America – a nonprofit, accredited school dedicated to helping working adults achieve a college degree, most completely debt-free.

When I started, we had about a dozen employees, a promising pilot project and no paying students. Today, we’ve partnered with more than 100 businesses to help working adults earn an accredited certificate, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree.

This past year, we enrolled more than 4,600 new students – as many as UNH & Dartmouth combined. Seventy percent are the first in their family to attend college, and academic performance and graduation rates exceed peer schools nationally.

Most importantly, we built deep partnerships with employers from small businesses to Fortune 50 companies so that the education is leading to job promotions, retention of great employees, and business growth.

To be sure, the academic solution for a mid-career working adult is different than an 18-year-old living in a dorm, or a grad student creating new knowledge that revolutionizes an industry. But helping build College for America showed me there is opportunity for more support of New Hampshire’s state higher education landscape.

Here is how we cut costs, cut student debt, and boost our New Hampshire workforce:

First, boost state support for public higher education funding but connect it to clear accountability goals for the first time (like reductions in student debt, in-state enrollment levels and graduation numbers into sectors of key workforce demand).

We can’t afford to still be funding our university system at pre-recession levels. But increased state support must result in clear outcomes-based measurement to ensure efficient use of tax dollars and a direct boost to economic growth.

Second, better connect higher education paths across all academic levels to ensure lower-cost completion. Today, some of our most important higher education occurs in career and technical education in our high schools – dual-credit programs and promising but too-narrow dual-enrollment programs.

Earning part of a degree in high school, community college, or a trade program can significantly lower out-of-pocket costs for a four-year degree down the road, but these paths need to be available for every student and expanded in sectors like information technology and computer science.

Third, bring employers closer to higher education to boost workforce relevance. This includes prioritizing expanded internships to loan repayment and employer tuition reimbursement options, as well as direct programs like BAE’s successful partnership with UNH and Albany Safran’s composite manufacturing programs with Great Bay Community College.

But one-off partnerships aren’t enough, and part a governor’s role is to elevate and coordinate our top statewide priorities. As governor, strengthening our workforce and cutting college costs will be at the top of my list. That includes moving forward with opportunities like Gateway to Work, where we can repurpose unused public welfare dollars to support job-training.

Cutting college costs, reducing student debt and strengthening our workforce will bring and keep more young people, young families, new businesses and startups in New Hampshire, and it will unlock for the potential for strong growth at some of our best employers.

One of College for America’s first graduates told me after completing her associate degree that it turned around her entire life. She’s now been promoted twice and is on her way to a bachelor’s degree – and her employer couldn’t be happier. New Hampshire’s economic future, more than anything else, depends on investing in our people.

Colin Van Ostern, of Concord, is a member of the New Hampshire Executive Council and the Democratic candidate for governor.