Community college officials cautious about proposed merger with USNH

  • The NHTI directory sign leading into the campus on Wednesday, Hune 10, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 3/6/2021 3:43:58 PM

When Gov. Chris Sununu announced his plan to unite the state’s community colleges and public universities into one system, it raised concerns from officials who work to provide an affordable education at two-year schools.

“The conversation has been very cautious on our side, as it continues to be,” Susan Huard, interim chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire, told a panel of the House Finance Committee. “We have so many questions about how this would happen.”

The process of implementing the governor’s plan is still in its early stages, so Huard and others did not want to speculate or comment on the process in detail, but some are still showing caution toward the idea.

At the committee meeting in late February, Rep. Ken Weyler pointed out the differences between the two systems, especially in terms of mission.

“I appreciate what the community college does, and I hope they don’t lose it if and when they merge with UNH,” Weyler said, specifically referencing their emphasis on schooling students in employable fields.

Weyler, a Kingston Republican, also had concerns about funding. He said that the committee typically was “more generous” to community colleges than to the University System of New Hampshire, “because we think it helps more people in New Hampshire and especially more people that are starting out and can’t afford a four-year college.”

That philosophy presented a problem with the merger plan, he said.

“Here’s the quandary I see immediately: If we give a batch of money to this combined thing, is UNH going to take the bigger share?” Weyler said.

Rep. Karen Umberger, chairwoman of the committee, shared these concerns.

“I do agree that it would be easy for the community college to get subsumed into the university system,” said Umberger, a Kearsage Republican. “And I am a strong proponent of that not happening.”

Huard’s primary concern with the merger is not that she believes it is a flawed plan. Before the panel, Huard said she thought it was a good idea.

“I think it’s an idea that requires investigation,” she said. However, her mission is to maintain the identity and mission of the state’s 12 community colleges.

“When we look at other mergers that have happened, the first voice that goes away is the voice of the community colleges,” she said. “So you can see why we have a concern here.”

“Our work is necessary,” she added, “but it is not glamorous work. We are supporting people who are leaving us.”

Many community college students attend classes with the intent of moving on, be it to employment or further schooling.

“Community colleges are here to serve people when they need us,” Huard said. And because of that unique mission, she said, “our needs are very different” than the university system.

Another key component for Huard is making sure students can afford to attend the schools.

“Really, staunchly creating the middle class and giving people that opportunity is what community colleges are all about, and we do that by maintaining affordability,” she said. This affordability, she said, is made possible through state funding.

As for the university system, Catherine Provencher, the chief administrative officer and vice chancellor of finance for the university system, told the panel that while the two systems have different missions, both are “public resources to all Granite Staters.”

“This is about the future of public higher education in the Granite State,” she said. “Higher education is changing at a rate that we can’t keep up with and we need to be looking forward, not, in my opinion, backward.”

Provencher said demographic data has shown the number of high school graduates is on the decline and will drop significantly after 2025.

“Not only do our N.H. public higher education institutions vie for these students, so do private and public institutions across New England and the nation,” she said. This competition will continue to become more fierce and will create financial pressures on both schools and students, she said.

These are some of the reasons that Sununu proposed the merger in the first place, and Provencher concurred with his reasoning.

“A combination would accelerate the advancement of certificates, degrees, and adult learning ... that employees and businesses need to expand the N.H. economy and reduce costs,” Provencher said.

“N.H. has an exceptional public higher education system that students from K-16 can tap into,” Provencher added. “A major goal in uniting the two systems is to increase and make more accessible the pipeline and pathways for our N.H. students.”

Officials from both systems have publicly announced their support of the merger plan. The university system board called the plan “visionary and timely,” as well as the “best possible approach to securing, for the long term, the state’s capacity to offer all its residents affordable, accessible, and diverse pathways to high quality education.”

The community college board said in a statement that it “commends the Governor’s vision for enhanced student success and flexible, seamless pathways within and across New Hampshire’s higher educational systems.”

Gretchen Mullin-Sawicki, president of NHTI, was sparse with her remarks and reluctant to speculate so early in the process on the effects the merger might have on of Concord’s community college.

“NHTI is looking forward to working with the Governor’s office, the Legislature and the University System to create a vision that best serves the students, businesses and citizens of New Hampshire,” Mullin-Sawicki said in a statement to the Monitor.

Her boss was more forthright.

“I’m concerned about the idea of going into this without more of a road map and with such a short timeline,” Huard said in summation of her concerns. “Essential in my view is the focus our colleges have on their communities, local businesses, and on the needs of our students, and maintaining that.”

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