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Editorial: What’s the cost of modest state support for higher education?

What’s the connection between the state government’s small financial contribution to its public colleges and universities and the number of students choosing to attend?

What’s the connection between that state aid and the size of classes at the University of New Hampshire or Keene State College?

Is there a direct link between state aid and tuition levels at NHTI or Plymouth State University?

Is there a connection between state aid and the number of full-time faculty?

What strategies does state government have to increase the number of in-state students applying to and attending New Hampshire schools in the face of declining student populations in the state and across the Northeast?

These are some of the important questions that come to mind after reading a new report called “Public Colleges, Public Dollars,” released last week by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies.

The report rightly notes that the political debate about higher education among lawmakers in New Hampshire focuses nearly entirely on dollar figures. How much aid this year versus last year? How much for the four-year colleges versus the two-year community colleges? But at a time when both public and private colleges are under significant pressure to bring down costs and increase quality, and at a time when New Hampshire’s ability to develop a skilled workforce is challenged by its aging population, there are clearly bigger questions to be discussed.

The new report, which can be read in full at nhpolicy.org, provides an update on some long-standing trends in New Hampshire: tuition at the state’s public colleges is among the highest in the country, as is student debt. State government’s contribution to its colleges and universities is among the lowest in the country. But here are some new wrinkles:

∎ While state support for public higher education in New Hampshire increased in the most recent budget, overall funding remains roughly equal to pre-recession levels.

∎ The community college system now receives a much bigger share of total state support for higher education than it did in the mid-2000s.

∎ The state’s four-year colleges are accepting significantly more students in recent years, but the percentage of accepted students actually choosing to enroll has fallen sharply.

∎ There has been strong growth among community colleges during the recession, both here and nationally. In the past decade, the number of high school seniors planning to enroll within the New Hampshire community college system increased by more than 4 percent; the number of students planning to enroll within the state university system decreased by 2 percent.

∎ At the state’s four-year schools, the number of students from out-of-state is growing dramatically: nearly 15 percent in the past decade.

∎ New Hampshire is tied with Vermont for the second lowest share of students who stay in the state for college: 42 percent in New Hampshire, compared to nearly 75 percent nationally.

Encouraging more high school students to continue on to higher education in New Hampshire, pricing that education reasonably and making the quality as high as possible should all be at the top of the agenda, both for policy makers in Concord and for college officials across the state. As the Center for Public Policy Studies report makes clear, there is much work to be done.

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