Funding for public higher education is a core issue in the budget battle now being waged between the Governor and the Legislature. Meanwhile, budget woes are brewing on the state's community college campuses, too, where students, faculty, and senior administrators don’t agree on how to balance the books.
It’s not every day you hear college faculty suggesting tuition is too low. But in his tiny office at Great Bay Community College, Chair of the English Department Rick Walters is telling me just that.
"I mean, saving $30 on a course - is that going to be the thing that clinches the deal for them when they decide to go to another college or go here? I don’t think so."
Last year, trustees for the Community College System of New Hampshire decided to reduce tuition by $10 a credit, or $30 a course. Administrators say they feared students were turned off by system's tuition, which has long been among the highest in the country.
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Now, the system is making layoffs. Overall, enrollment at New Hampshire's community colleges boomed during the recession, but has since fallen from that peak and has held steady for the past three years. Chancellor Ross Gittell says even at schools with growing enrollment, demand for classes has fallen short of projections. And he has to balance the books. The layoffs, he says, were around 7 percent of the system's total employment.
In the past year, 24 full-time faculty were laid off, and more positions were left vacant after retirements and resignations. Most of the layoffs took place at White Mountains, Great Bay, and Lakes Regional Community Colleges. Many lower-level administrative positions were also eliminated.
Walters – the English professor - says the faculty layoffs mean more classes will be taught by adjuncts. As for the faculty, he says, they'll be busy planning curricula, sitting on committees, and managing adjuncts, which means they won't have time to focus on students.
"You know academic integrity will become an issue here. It will be something the students will see, and that can’t be a good thing for the college," Walters says.
But not everyone agrees that full-time faculty deliver a better community college education.
Recent Great Bay alum Leah McFarland remembers her full-time faculty being busy and, as she put it, "unenthusiastic." She says the adjuncts were actually easier to reach in their free time.
"In terms of your quality of education, I don’t really think it’s going to make a difference," she says.
MacFarland agrees adjuncts are underpaid and underemployed. But as a student, she says, she would choose lower tuition over full-time faculty any day.
"Community college has been an option for people who don’t have a lot of money," she says. "So to make it competitive while the economy is on the rise you’re going to have to make it even cheaper."
MacFarland’s logic aligns pretty well with Chancellor Gittell’s.
"In the past, when there was a budget shortfall, quite often the decision was made to increase tuition," he says. "This board has made it a priority for affordability."
Former Vice Chancellor Chuck Annal doesn't agree. He says tuition and enrollment are not the only factors in this equation. Annal says senior administrator salaries are to blame for the budget shortfall.
Between 2007 and 2013, the vice chancellor’s salary increased by about $50,000 to $146,000. The chancellor’s salary increased by about $70,000 to $244,000.
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And then, the system added two senior level administrators. That’s according to documents provided to NHPR by the State Employees Association. Former Vice Chancellor Chuck Annal calls these salary changes unnecessary.
"There were already people very skilled people in positions of authority, the chief financial officer, the head of HR, who managed quite well," Annal says. "I was never quite sure why they wanted to bring in people over them."
Annal says that money should have been going into a rainy day fund for programs with low enrollment.
The community college system's board of trustees say the salary bumps were very necessary. Paul Holloway is president of the board.
"Our salaries were so noncompetitive it was a problem. We had college presidents making less money than high school principals," Holloway says. "To recruit in that… doesn’t make any sense."
It’s still a tough pill to swallow for many faculty. From 2012 to 2014, senior administrative pay rose by 33 percent, while faculty pay rose by only 12 percent, according to numbers from the Community College System provided by the State Employees Union.
"It’s sad, but it’s the reality, and I don’t think it’s going to change anytime soon unless the government decides to give education more money which – I don’t know where that would come from so," says Leah McFarland, the Great Bay alum.
But she isn’t talking about adjuncts this time. She’s talking about her own line of work. She's got a bachelors in education and social studies. But she works as a paraprofessional in a preschool, a job that in most cases doesn’t require a college degree. It’s frustrating, she says, but this is the world we live in.