A major challenge facing the Governor and the legislature this year is determining what the state’s contribution will be to the University System of New Hampshire. The system is made up of Granite State College, Keene State College, the University of New Hampshire and Plymouth State University.
There are 31,000 USNH students with 6,500 graduating and moving into the workforce each year. The state’s appropriation now is the same as it was in 1988 and accounts for just six percent of the system’s operating budget.
In the broadest of terms, over the last few years, the university system has been receiving around $100 million each year. The current budget reduced that amount of support by nearly one-half.
However defined, the reduced state grant was a tough hit for the system.
A legitimate question and often asked is: "How did it happen?"
The House sent their version of the budget to the Senate two years ago that included the university system cuts, elimination of uncompensated care payments to larger hospitals and the reduction of many services provided by the state for residents with developmental disabilities and mental illness. Projected revenues were limited and an agreement had been reached by the House and Senate on the total amount that was available for appropriations.
The Senate found, with its adjustments, ways to restore funding in its budget to the developmentally disabilities and mental health budget lines. But there was simply not enough revenue to return full funding to the hospitals or university system.
I also sensed in the legislative process, correctly or not, a level of frustration (possibly animosity) among some legislators toward the university system. There was an attempt to mandate that the system not financially support New Hampshire Public Television. The system agreed to end that funding.
And there were moves to eliminate the chancellor’s office which oversees some operations on behalf of the system’s schools. The chancellor’s office has scaled back its operations and the current chancellor retires on March 1. Eliminated from the chancellor’s office, too, was their legislative outreach or lobbying operation. That is now the responsibility of each campus.
An example of this change in legislative strategies was explained at a breakfast for legislators recently held at Keene State College. A couple dozen legislators met with some Keene State administrators, staff and students. Using Keene State as a focal point, Interim President Jay Kahn outlined the financial situation and the impact the current reduced grant means to that campus.
Keene State was looked at when I was growing up as primarily a teachers’ college. But over the decades it has broadened and expanded its portfolio of offerings. There are 5,000 students with more than 40 majors. Critically important to me is that 42 percent of students are first-generation students … the first in their families to attend a four-year college.
And, 51 percent of students are New Hampshire residents and 47 percent stay in the state after graduation. That is a critical selling point as I have pointed out in past articles. Businesses in New Hampshire need prepared and educated employees if they are going to succeed.
The higher education community has been energized and 2,500 concerned citizens are prepared, according to President Kahn, to let their legislators know they support restoration of the funding cuts in the current budget. The offer, or "deal," from the university system is that it will freeze tuition for two years for New Hampshire students.
State support for higher education has been waning for years depending upon the figures you use. At the high point, the state subsidy per New Hampshire student was $4,542 in fiscal year 2003. Last year, it was $622 and projected to fall to $575 this year.
For each New Hampshire resident, the state appropriates just over $63 to the university system. That is the lowest in the country. If we doubled that amount, we would still be the lowest. And, we know our students leave college with the highest debt load of any state.
There are immediate issues: can we find some or all of the money to bring the state’s support back to past levels for the university system? The Governor will have the first word on that next month.
Longer term, with such low levels of state funding, has the time has come to ask whether New Hampshire should get out of the higher education business? Or, do we need a new relationship between the university system and state government?
State Representative Jim and Mary Grenier went with me to a special meeting of Odd Fellows, Forest Lodge 69 in Marlow last Tuesday to honor our Lempster friend and neighbor, Gilbert Pinkney, for 65 years of membership and service to Lodge 69.
From my earliest days in Lempster, Pinky, as Gilbert is known to his friends, would remind me of upcoming monthly breakfasts put on at the lodge hall in Marlow. And there were dinners in Lempster put on Pinky and his lodge brothers on special occasions. For all of his work over seven decades, Pinky was presented with the Lodge’s Distinguished Service Award for 2012. I also had the chance to present him with a commendation from Governor Maggie Hassan.
Around the time Pinky was starting in the lodge, he was also getting married. Eleanor and Pinky were married 65 years ago this week. Congratulations.