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Sunday, November 20, 2011

NH earns dubious distinction with student loan debt

Guest Commentary

New Hampshire is, and loves to be, first. We fight for the first-in-the-nation primary and proudly tout our standing on lists like “healthiest state” and “safest state.”

But New Hampshire also has the dubious distinction of being No. 1 in student debt. Recent reports show college graduates carry an average debt of $31,048, the most in the country, and the state has the second-greatest proportion of students with debt, 74 percent.

New Hampshire has long held another dubious distinction of having the lowest public investment in higher education in the nation, less than half the national average.

High in-state tuition at our public colleges, universities and community colleges makes it difficult to retain students in New Hampshire; 48 percent of students going to college leave the state to do so, compared with a national average of 18 percent.

The impact of this statistic on New Hampshire’s demographically aging population is clear. While the state has benefitted from in-migration of educated adults, the state cannot afford to lose its young workers and the intellectual innovation and entrepreneurship they represent. Thus, the news about New Hampshire’s record-setting student debt hits a nerve for those concerned with the state’s future economic and civic well being.

It is the responsibility of colleges and universities to control expenses, prioritize offerings and position their students for success by maintaining quality programs that are economically relevant. It is the responsibility of students themselves, and their families, to make sensible choices about how much borrowing they can take on.

An unmanageable debt load doesn’t just happen; it is in part the result of decisions made in the college planning process. That is why New Hampshire’s community colleges, for example, promote the increasingly popular “two plus two” approach that enables students to start at a local, lower-cost community college and transfer to earn a baccalaureate degree from a four-year institution. That is also the reason we promote the Running Start program, so high school students can start college with some credits already completed.

But there is also a significant public benefit in fostering a population with the education, knowledge and skills to become informed citizens and economic contributors. Thus, there is a public role in supporting overall college affordability so that students can attend college in their home state and begin their working life here without facing crippling debt loads.

Recent deep cuts in state support for public higher education have increased the barriers for residents. As a consequence of these actions – a 50 percent cut in state funding to the University System of New Hampshire and a 20 percent cut to the community colleges – colleges face the prospect of reining in or curtailing programs that cost the most to offer. Among these are health and technology-related programs, the very programs and skills demanded by a highly competitive global economy.

The impact will be fewer skilled professionals to provide services across a range of health-related, technical and other fields, and fewer residents with the education and knowledge to function in this global economy.

Reducing the pool of people with high-demand skills will affect the ability of businesses to sustain operations or grow, and will deter companies from coming to New Hampshire.

The picture does not improve looking forward – industry projections indicate the majority of new jobs will require postsecondary education. The same report notes “the recession is accelerating the shift to jobs requiring postsecondary education.”

In 1776, founding father John Adams spoke of the importance of educating our population, particularly those most in need of upward mobility. As is often the case, what is past is prologue, and in today’s world we can recognize the need for our population to be educated, skilled and vested in a forward-moving global economy and healthy civil society.

A state with high numbers of underskilled, minimum-wage earners is a dubious prospect indeed. As we look to emerge from the recession, a sound policy prioritizes postsecondary opportunities that teach high-demand skills, lift people into the middle class and fuel a strong economy.

J. Bonnie Newman is interim chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire.