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Solving the Higher Ed Equation

Published Friday Mar 18, 2011


Students graduate from NH colleges and universities with the fifth-highest level of student debt in the country. That's in part because NH funding for higher education is the lowest in the United States. And those two factors could result in a workforce crisis.

It should come as no surprise then that NH's public colleges and universities also have some of the highest tuitions in the country, with graduates owing more than $25,000 on average by the time they graduate. Yet with high tech, manufacturing and other businesses demanding an educated workforce, it creates a math equation with many variables and no easy solution.

That equation was the focus of a discussion in January when Business NH Magazine gathered 11 higher education leaders. Participants were frank about the challenges-low levels of support from the state, increasing demand for financial aid, and a dwindling pipeline of future students.

But they also emphasized the important role NH's 27 post-secondary institutions play in the economy, be it the 15,000-plus degrees they confer annually, the 17,000-plus people they employ or the millions spent by students and their families in local communities.

Lowdown on Costs

The state's community colleges had the highest average annual tuition among community colleges nationwide in the 2008-09 school year at $5,953, according to the NH College and University Council (NHCUC). The university system ranked fifth nationally for the highest average annual tuition for state schools at $8,601.

Is NH becoming a state where only the rich can afford college? Higher education leaders say no.

The University System of NH (USNH), for example, increased financial aid by 40 percent in the past two years and spends 15 percent less per student than comparable institutions, says Edward MacKay, chancellor of USNH. The state's private colleges increased student aid by about 25 percent in 2010 alone, says Thomas Horgan, president and CEO of the NHCUC. In fiscal year 2008-09, NH institutions granted $276 million in financial aid to 47,554 students. MacKay says NH also had the highest proportion nationally of low-income students attending college in recent years. At Keene State College, 44 percent of students are first-generation students, says Maryann LaCroix Lindberg, VP of advancement at the college.

"They don't come from backgrounds with a deep asset base," Lindberg says of those first-generation grads. "When the going gets rough, these kids have to drop out because they are already working two or three jobs."

Taxation is also a challenge. Unlike colleges and universities 30 minutes south in Massachusetts, NH's private institutions pay property taxes. At Saint Anselm College in Manchester, that tax bill totals $500,000. "That is $500,000 in student aid I can't give," says Rev. Jonathan DeFelice, president of Saint Anselm. "There is a story there that needs to be told. We are providing access for some very, very needy students." In fact, DeFelice says, 90 percent of students receive some form of financial aid.

When financial aid is lacking, students can be left behind. Robert Baines, president of Chester College of New England in Chester and a former Manchester mayor, says he can document 10 to 15 students each year in the past three years who didn't attend because of a lack of financial aid.

And no discussion about costs is complete without bringing up health care. Like NH businesses, colleges and universities are facing higher premiums. At Antioch University New England in

Keene, tuition remained unchanged during the '80s and early '90s, but has spiked significantly since then in part due to escalating health care costs, says President David Caruso. He says tuition hikes are difficult for graduate students who aren't eligible for financial aid. He says a master's degree can result in $20,000 to $40,000 of debt and a doctoral degree, $120,000.

Given those challenges, Hesser College engages students about financial literacy before they walk into their first class. "We instituted a financial literacy program that starts upon acceptance ... and paces with them as they continue," says Jacquelyn Armitage, president of Hesser College in Manchester. Being career-based, she says, financial literacy and career placements ensure student debt can be repaid.

ROI Versus Education

Tough economic times have forced students and institutions to make difficult choices. Students must weigh the cost of a degree against future job prospects when selecting a school and major.

Colleges must sometimes discontinue programs with low attendance.

Roundtable participants caution students to consider more than the return on investment when determining their major. "Students graduating now will likely change careers, not just jobs, seven times," Armitage says. "You are not just slotting them into a narrow field." Therefore, she says, students need to be trained in skills useful to all employers, such as communication and critical thinking.

Kathryn Dodge, executive director of the NH Postsecondary Education Commission, calls the return on investment argument problematic when schools end programs they no longer see as valuable. "Institutions think they may be protecting students from something [when they end a program], but where is the student choice?" she says. "How market driven are we?"

DeFelice of Saint Anselm agrees. "Particularly in liberal arts, we are preparing students for life. Is philosophy worth studying? We've had philosophy majors who succeeded very well on Wall Street," he says.

To remain competitive in today's economy, colleges must demonstrate their value to prospective students. At Rivier College in Nashua that means allowing students to combine undergraduate and graduate studies, using their senior year and the summers before and after to earn a master's degree along with a bachelor's. Nursing students, says college President William Farrell, take the most advantage of that option. "I think it's a way of dealing with two issues: Providing a solid liberal arts program, but wait a minute, if you want to be prepared for a specific career, we can help you out," he says.

And some career decisions have critical workforce implications. Finances are forcing students into and out of certain careers, says Mark Edelstein, president of Lakes Region Community College.

Among those being left behind are teaching and early childhood education, neither of which pay well. That worries Baines, a former teacher and principal. "The whole future of our state means keeping a strong kindergarten through 12th grade education," Baines says. "We need incentives to go into teaching as a profession," he adds, referencing how President John F. Kennedy offered free tuition to students who studied to be teachers.

Colleges and universities also need to cater to many different types of students. Today, says Caruso, about 50 percent of the roughly 15 million college students nationally are adult learners with families, jobs, or mortgages, who want flexibility and part-time programs.

To that end, NH institutions have expanded online and part-time programs.

One of the state's newest institutions has its own take on that. The American College of History and Legal Studies in Salem is a two-year completion school for junior and senior year that opened last fall and grants one degree: a bachelor's in history and legal studies. Tuition is $10,000 a year, but scholarships can reduce the cost to $5,000. Founding professor and dean Michael Chesson says the school now has fewer than 10 students, though it expects to grow. Students can use their degree to go on to law school or become certified to teach.

Connecting With Business

"The economic future of New Hampshire is bleak without a well-educated workforce," says Edelstein, who will be retiring in July. Many NH institutions have thus strengthened their ties with the business community, producing graduates with skills businesses need to grow and prosper.

In addition to educating students, NH's higher ed institutions are educating businesses about the resources they offer. Campus Compact for NH and the NHCUC co-produced a 2011 Economic Forecast. It included forecasts from 24 colleges and universities presidents and a directory of contacts for businesses. "We talk a lot about the New Hampshire Advantage: having the lowest crime rate in New England, being the healthiest state, having low unemployment. All of those I would tie to the fact that we are a highly educated state," says Horgan of the NHCUC.

Businesses use those rankings to recruit employees and when choosing to open and expand in NH. That's why, says Lindberg, business executives and educators must change the way education is discussed in the NH Legislature.

"We need to get together to change the way education is talked about from being an expenditure to being an investment," says Lindberg. "Local business leaders can reach local legislators much more effectively than educators can about the power of an educated workforce."

The numbers tell that story: College graduates, says Horgan, make $1 million more during the course of their career than those with only a high school diploma.

Students who complete some college-even if they don't finish-make 17 percent more over their career. "I fear we are losing our commitment as a nation to an educated populace," he says.

Many NH businesses and institutions are working to forge connections that benefit students, businesses and the state. Keene State College and River Valley Community College partner with local manufacturers to train workers for a growing number of advanced manufacturing jobs. Lakes Region Community College is educating students in the emerging fields of building analysts and energy installers, says Edelstein. Antioch students work as consultants at local nonprofits for their master's thesis. And the University System and Saint Anselm College are expanding their nursing programs.

Demand for skilled high-tech workers and engineers also remains strong. The University System awards 60 percent of its degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, even when it must recruit outside NH to support those programs, according to MacKay.

Some educators, though, ask that NH businesses do more.

"There does need to be a greater support for internships in support of learning," says Farrell of Rivier College.

Competing for Students

Demographers note some troubling trends when it comes to an educated workforce: The pool of high school students is shrinking while more boomers are heading toward retirement. Thus, there will be fewer students to replace retirees. "The state is facing an absolutely critical demographic crisis and I'm not sure people are aware of it," says MacKay.

Currently, the 35- to 64-year-olds account for 12 percent of the population. At the same time, there will be an estimated 18 percent decrease in NH high school graduates between 2008 and 2018, with New England- a major source of students-also expecting double digit declines. "Our challenge is to get a higher proportion of students to go to college and then to stay here in New Hampshire," he says.

Factor in a soft economy and educators are scrambling to attract students and show them higher education is affordable. In addition to recruiting out-of-state, USNH recruits internationally. "Each out-of-state student subsidizes the cost of in-state students by several thousand dollars," MacKay says.

Colleges are also aiming younger, targeting middle and high schoolers. The Community College System of NH, says Edelstein, aligned its math curriculum with high schools. The NH Scholars Program, says Horgan, encourages students to commit to four years of math and science in high school, thus making them better prepared for college and future careers. USNH allows students to begin at a community college and then transfer to a four-year institution, saving them thousands of dollars.

And the NH Higher Education Assistance Foundation (NHHEAF), which provides free college planning to NH students, is working in rural areas such as the North Country to let students know exactly what college costs and how it can be accessed, says Dodge of the NH Post Secondary Commission.

Individual institutions are also adapting. Saint Anselm added four new majors and expanded its nursing program, even though it's the college's most expensive program. The American College of History and Legal Studies in Salem uses online textbooks, saving its students hundreds of dollars in book costs, says Chesson. But competition for students and rising costs have taken a toll on some institutions. Notre Dame in Manchester closed in 2002 and Daniel Webster College in Nashua was sold to the for-profit ITT Technical Institute.

Benefits of Higher Education

In addition to producing tomorrow's skilled workforce, NH's colleges and universities have a massive impact on the state's economy. When you include investments in research and development, salaries and benefits, student aid and the increased salaries students will earn due to their degrees, the effect is more than $4.9 billion.

Baines says the many colleges in the Manchester area attract young professionals who help create a solid business and cultural footing for the city. As a result of the 55% Initiative, NH students who stayed in state after graduating increased from 51 percent in 2000 to 63 percent in 2009, MacKay says.

Dodge is continuously impressed by the commitment of NH's higher education institutions, making special note of the ways colleges and universities are meeting challenges they face. That includes the establishment of an innovation commercialization center at UNH, a small-business institute at Plymouth State University in Plymouth and new models of online education.

"What I majored in got me in the door, but what enriched my life personally and professionally are those damn general education courses I didn't want to take," Edelstein says.

To enrich the next generation of students, roundtable participants say high schools and colleges need to encourage students to take more math and science classes-even if they lower student GPAs. "We need to make sure every high school in New Hampshire participates in Dean Kamen's [FIRST science and engineering program]. It's exciting. It's fun," Baines says. And that excitement and challenge, agree roundtable participants, is what education needs to be about.


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