NH sees steady college enrollment drop, part of regional trend

Students walk past the historic Thompson Hall at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H., in 2016.

Students walk past the historic Thompson Hall at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H., in 2016. Jim Cole / AP file

By ETHAN DEWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 10-31-2023 3:09 PM

New Hampshire is outpacing the country in an unfortunate category: the decline in students attending its colleges.

The number of students enrolled full time in the state’s public colleges and universities dropped 13.6 percent from 2019 to the 2022-2023 school year, according to a University of System of New Hampshire annual board report released last month. Nationally, enrollment dropped 8 percent.

“As high school enrollment levels in the state of New Hampshire have declined over the past decade and a half, USNH has seen similar declines in in-state enrollment,” the report states.

Now, the state is moving to address the trend. Last week, Gov. Chris Sununu announced a new task force to study how the state can react to the steady enrollment drop, and how its public colleges and universities should acclimate to a new reality.

In a statement, Sununu called the task force a “proactive approach” to “ensure our community college and university systems remain robust drivers for the state’s workforce and culture.”

But some researchers note the problem is bigger than any one strategy can accommodate. Population decline, driven by an aging public and an insufficient “replacement rate,” is affecting colleges across the country, noted Nathan Grawe, an economics professor at Carleton College in Minnesota who studies the intersection of demographics and higher education. And the problem is going to be felt most acutely in New England.

“There’s this gaping red hole in the northeast quadrant of the country, which is coming from the fact that low fertility is already well established in the Northeast,” Grawe said in an interview.

In New Hampshire, the drops are not uniform. Attendance at Keene State College, Plymouth State University, and Granite State College has dropped by higher percentages than at the University of New Hampshire, according to numbers released in the annual board report Oct. 19.

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At UNH, the number of applicants has increased since 2019, from 18,474 for the 2019-2020 school year to 21,016 in the 2022-2023 school year. But the number of students who have actually attended after being accepted has dropped from 20 percent to 16 percent.

UNH can point to some positive indicators this year. Tuition rates have been frozen since 2020, yet UNH is seeing more interest from out-of-state students in the last two years, according to the board report.

Meanwhile, revenue increased last year, in part due to an uptick in students living on campus and paying higher fees in the 2022-2023 school year, and in part due to the school’s sale of excess energy back into the electrical grid, the report states.

College administrators in New Hampshire argue that keeping New Hampshire colleges and universities attractive is a major boon to workforce needs; in the last full school year, 4,500 new students studied at a New Hampshire public college or university, according to the annual report. About 2,000 graduates of the university system take jobs in New Hampshire every year, according to the board report.

But the report noted the overall picture is sobering.

“New England has historically been known as a premier location for the pursuit of higher education, whether at a public or private institution,” the board report said. “While that is still true, regional school-age populations are expected to decrease over time, resulting in more competition for the smaller number of NH and New England students.”

In 2018, Grawe released a book forecasting that colleges across the country would see an enrollment drop of up to 15 percent between 2025 and 2029, using census numbers and college acceptance rates. Colleges in the Northeast, Midwest, and parts of the South would be hardest hit, while institutions in Texas, Florida, and much of the West would see less of an effect.

While New England is likely to bear the brunt of the enrollment drops, not all its institutions will suffer, Grawe predicts. Private, elite colleges such as Harvard or Dartmouth will be able to more easily weather the changes, in part because of their low acceptance rates. When faced with demographic challenges, elite colleges can simply increase their acceptance rate slightly to account for the decline.

“I don’t think that what’s coming is likely to be a big threat to those highly selective institutions,” Grawe said.

UNH has begun increasing its acceptance rate in recent years. While 84 percent of students who applied were accepted in 2019, that jumped up to 87 percent in 2021 and 2022.

When facing enrollment drops, college administrators and trustees have a number of tools available, Grawe noted. They can reduce or freeze tuition to try to stay competitive. They can cut programs and attempt to reduce staff.

But Grawe argues there is a better strategy: retention. If administrators work to increase the morale and engagement of the students who do attend, they can reduce departures, boost graduation rates, and stay competitive.

One example is the University of Southern Maine, Grawe says. Even as the institution reduces its budget to face enrollment and funding challenges, it has also increased its retention rate by boosting the availability of academic advisers for its students, Grawe said. It’s an example of how the need to re-strategize can produce silver linings, he said.

“Thinking hard about how we can engage with student success is one positive outcome,” he said.

In the coming months, experts in the state will take a crack at the problem. The Public Higher Education Task Force to Study the Strategic Alignment of Public Higher Education in New Hampshire will meet through the winter to develop strategies to handle a smaller stream of students entering college, according to the executive order signed by Sununu on Oct. 25.

The task force will look into the “strategic alignment” between the state’s community college system and the university system in order to rise to the challenges. The panel will study how to increase the number of people getting an education in the state, and will look to align that increase with the state’s workforce shortage.

But the task force will also tackle the inevitable drop in enrollment. The executive order requires members to consider ways to reduce costs, streamline services, and reduce duplicative programs across the university program. The governor has asked the taskforce to explore the “potential for economies of scale and synergy.” Its report is due in March.

Sitting on the task force will be Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, or a representative; Chief Administrative Officer of the University System of New Hampshire Catherine Provencher; one senator; two House representatives; two members of the community college system board of trustees; two members of the university system board of trustees; two “representatives of business and industry”; and a representative of the governor.

“USNH looks forward to participating in and reviewing the committee’s report,” USNH Board of Trustees Chair Alex Walker Jr. said in a statement.