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Ease the burden on our college students

The story of the state government's relationship to the state university system can be told in extremes:

New Hampshire state government contributes the least of any state to its purportedly public university system. The schools get just 6 percent of their budget from the state.

The state government chopped its contribution to the university system in half last year - the biggest cut in the country. In fact, it's believed to be the biggest reduction in state funding to a state university system ever.

New Hampshire students graduate with some of the largest debt loads in the country: $31,048 on average in 2010, compared with the national average of $22,250.

Tuition for in-state students at the University of New Hampshire is now $13,670; for out-of-staters, it's $23,130 per year. (Add in room and board and fees, and the total comes to $26,186 for in-state students and a whopping $38,646 for others.) At Keene State College and Plymouth State University, the in-state rate for tuition alone is now $10,410; for out-of-staters, it's $17,310.

Amid these grim numbers, the university system trustees have put a bold deal on the table: If the next Legislature and governor restore the nearly $100 million cut over the past two years, tuition at the state's four-year universities and colleges will be frozen for two years and financial aid will be substantially increased.

"Now is the time for the governor and the Legislature to make this essential investment in New Hampshire's university system and assure we have the workforce needed to fuel our economy," the leaders of the trustees wrote in a column published in the Monitor on Saturday. "To maintain New Hampshire's advantage of a highly educated and engaged population, we must move forward together to provide the opportunity for the next generation of New Hampshire to succeed and lead the continued enhancement of our economy and quality of life."

It is, perhaps, too soon for State House candidates to sign on to such a deal. After all, the winners won't take office for several months, and it's impossible to know what the next budget year will hold. Among the possibilities: The state could find itself on the losing end of costly lawsuits involving care for people with mental illness, conditions at the women's prison and Medicaid reimbursements for hospitals across the state. Coming up with big money for the university system will require new revenue or budget cuts - neither of which will be easy.

Nonetheless, candidates should consider the deal seriously. It has much going for it: a concrete way to ease the burden on New Hampshire's struggling students and a commitment to work together. After two years in which the university system has been demonized by legislators looking for budget cuts, a spirit of partnership would be a welcome improvement.

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