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University system waits for bad news

Last modified: 4/24/2011 12:00:00 AM
University of New Hampshire student Robert Waddell summed his opinion of state budget cuts into three words: "It's gonna suck."

And though they didn't use the same words, University System of New Hampshire officials agree. But they said it's too early to know what they're going to do about it.

For the past three years, the state has sent about $100 million a year to the system's four schools: the University of New Hampshire, Keene State College, Plymouth State University and Granite State College.

UNH takes the largest slice, almost $68 million; Keene State and Plymouth State each receive about $13.4 million. Granite State College receives about $2.7 million, and the balance - $2.7 million - funds New Hampshire Public Television.

The state appropriation is mostly used to subsidize tuition for New Hampshire residents, according to University System spokesman Matthew Cookson.

In-state students pay $10,082 per year in tuition at UNH, $7,360 at Keene State and $7,318 at Plymouth State. New Hampshire residents at Granite State College pay $260 per credit.

In February, Gov. John Lynch proposed cutting the annual appropriation by 5 percent. The House then proposed cutting an additional $40 million.

Tuition fees were already due to increase at each of the schools next year - between 4.6 percent at Granite State College and 5.8 percent at UNH.

University system trustees voted for the increase in February this year, several months earlier than usual, to give students and their families more time to plan their budgets, Cookson said. But with the state budget unlikely to be resolved for months to come, the trustees can revisit the tuition rates again, he said.

The Legislature's deadline to approve a budget is June 30. Tuition bills are traditionally sent out in the first week of July.

Mark Huddleston, president of UNH, said in a statement earlier this month the cut would mean eliminating 200 jobs through attrition, retirement and layoffs. Those steps are part of work to keep next year's tuition from rising more, he said in an emailed statement to the Monitor.

"Our number one priority is to preserve the quality of our programs and the affordability of UNH for our students and their families. There are no plans at this time to increase tuition further," the statement said.

No other college leader would name any concrete examples of potential effects of the proposed cut. Everything - from furloughs and layoffs to spending reserve fund money or increasing tuition - is on the table right now, but they all said they will work to avoid increasing costs for students.

Officials said they are unable to make final decisions about what to cut, where or whether to increase tuition and by how much to raise it because they don't know if the Senate will restore any of the reduced funding. Ultimately, any differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget will have to be reconciled through negotiations. The trustees have the authority to revisit tuition when that process is over, Cookson said.

"We need more information on which to develop our future budgets, and we are working with our trustees on a variety of options, but the time for closing in on those is getting short," said Jay Kahn, vice president for finance and planning at Keene State.

As the pages of the calendar flip by without a final budget figure, so do opportunities for reducing costs, he said.

"It's difficult to implement a full year's worth of savings given the decision timelines," he said.

So despite an attempt to settle rates earlier than ever, everything is back in flux, as the university and college officials await the Legislature's decisions and students and families watch days pass by without knowing for sure how much another semester or year will cost.

University of New Hampshire students interviewed on the Durham campus last week were mostly unaware of the debate over the university system budget in Concord, beyond hearing rumors of potential layoffs.

None said he or she was likely to leave school if tuition increases more than expected.

Waddell, a 21-year-old UNH junior from Bow, said he'll stay mostly because he knows next year will be his last.

"I'm already so much in debt, what's one more year? I might as well finish. It's still gonna suck, but I'm really gonna hate it 10 years from now when I'm paying for it, not now," he said.

Several other UNH students who shrugged their shoulders at the idea of higher tuition also said the additional cost will just blend into what they already owe.

New Hampshire college students graduated with an average of $29,400 in debt in 2009, the highest in the country, according to the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.

"If I don't come back, I still have student loans to pay, and I wouldn't have a good job to pay it with," said Danielle Alves, a 24-year-old junior from Seabrook. "If I come back and finish, at least I will have my degree."

It may not be that simple, said Tara Payne of the Center for College Planning.

"The philosophy I think we're seeing is, 'I need a degree for my future, and I'll do whatever it takes to get that degree.' But students may not be in a position to get more loans to do that," she said.

Students in their first year of college can borrow up to $5,500 from the federal government at a very low interest rate.

That increases by $1,000 the next two years. But $7,500 does not cover current rates of in-state tuition, plus room and board, plus the expected and potential further increases at any of the state's residential institutions.

Students already hitting the maximum allowed government loans and finding private loans too expensive may choose to attend school part time or at a less expensive campus, Payne said.

"The good news is that students are focused on finishing. They recognized they need a degree for the future they want. That's the great news," she said. "The bad news is that it's at a time when our state is not able to support them in a way that we should."

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com.)


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