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My Turn: New Hampshire needs a long-term plan for higher education

As Gov. Maggie Hassan stated in her inaugural address, higher education in New Hampshire is facing serious challenges that foretell dramatic implications for our state’s economic and cultural future. Rising costs and reduced financial resources threaten access to higher education for New Hampshire residents exactly when our state needs to expand college attendance. By 2018, it is estimated that nationally 13.8 million new jobs and 33 million replacement jobs will need to be filled. Approximately 63 percent of these positions are estimated to require workers with at least some college education. New Hampshire will see similar demands for educated workers in the years ahead.

In addition, by just about every measure, everything that makes New Hampshire a great place to live and work is directly tied to the fact that our citizens are, on average, highly educated.

If New Hampshire is going to participate in the next “new economy,” while simultaneously maintaining our high quality of life, then educating the next generation of citizens needs to be a top priority. Unfortunately, New Hampshire is now the only state in the country to have eliminated state-funded scholarships for even its neediest students. Our state ranks dead last on the list of state aid to college students.

For New Hampshire to have an effective economic development strategy, one that yields the highest possible returns, developing our human capital offers the best way of attracting and maintaining businesses in our state. What will set New Hampshire apart will be high performance in the new “knowledge economy.” A highly educated citizenry will result in continued demand for quality of life and amenity opportunities, a business climate conducive to high skilled employment and a higher education system dedicated to quality teaching, learning and research.

With a new governor and Legislature in place, it might just be the right time to consider developing a long-term strategic plan for all of higher education, coupled with a renewed economic plan that identifies our priorities over the next decade.

What is not working is the lack of consensus on where New Hampshire is headed economically, how we might get there or even a strategy for regularly bringing key players (business, higher education, policy-makers) together to develop an innovation-focused economy.

As the president of New England College and chairwoman of the New Hampshire College & University Council, I am eager to participate in efforts to establish realistic, achievable goals that will ensure New Hampshire residents are prepared to meet the workforce demands ahead, as are my colleague presidents. We are indeed blessed in the Granite State to have a diverse array of public and private colleges and universities. Each and every one of our institutions educate bright and energetic students every day, are important community partners and serve as the cornerstone for attracting new businesses seeking a well-educated and highly skilled workforce. Every other industry sector (finance, health care, advanced manufacturing, energy, hospitality, etc.) relies on access to a talented and well-educated workforce that can only be provided by the higher education sector. Effectively capitalizing on New Hampshire’s quality public and private higher education institutions will require new partnerships be established to ensure that our state is prepared to respond to emerging demands and to developing a clear plan for bringing new businesses to the state, while retaining and supporting those businesses already here.

I hope Hassan, the Legislature and key business leaders will call on both public and private higher education institutions, all across the state, to help design a dynamic new plan for New Hampshire’s future. We stand ready to help.

(Michele Perkins is president of New England College in Henniker and chairwoman of the New Hampshire College & University Council.)

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