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The Politics of Higher Ed Funding in New Hampshire

Hannah McCarthy/NHPR

Among the dozens of agencies and groups watching the state budget process this spring are the two organizations representing public higher education in New Hampshire: the University System, and the Community College System. In recent years, the two have fared differently when it comes to state support.

When the latest New Hampshire budget proposal hits the House floor for a vote next week, it will reflect a trend in higher education funding that’s been going on for a decade now. In the House’s plan, the University System is flat funded compared to the last budget, while the state's Community Colleges would get a boost. In fact, the House budget would give state universities less state funding than they got ten years ago, while Community Colleges would be up more than 30 percent over that same period.

There are a lot of factors behind this disparity – like changes in student enrollment and staff, and shifting trends in the higher education landscape. But Representative Dan Eaton, a Democrat from Stoddard, says a lot of it comes down to politics.

"The university has been, probably, the most politically inept entity that we come across in this entire structure," says Eaton, "And if anyone can figure out a way to shoot themselves in the foot for a budget seminar, count on the University System to do it."

Eaton says he’s gone to bat for the University System before – arguing for higher state support in past budgets. But this year, he says, "they need to fend for their own. Because they have done nothing to help us help them."  

Eaton says that in recent years, the University System has made some moves that don’t make it easy for legislators to back them up  - like spending a million dollars of a donation on a new scoreboard at the University of New Hampshire. He says it was bad PR. That, and lawmakers want to be asked nicely.

"They walked in the door with the same argument as always. 'You flat funded, so we’re gonna raise tuition.' Instead of saying,'We understand you’re in a tight spot and we’re going to do the best we can.' It’s always a threat," Eaton says.

Eaton’s take may seem harsh, but even supporters of the University System agree it’s got an image problem in the State House. Ed McKay, the head of the New Hampshire Division of Higher Education, served as Chancellor of the University System until 2013. (Employees in the current Chancellor’s office declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Mckay says that legislators do perceive the two systems differently. And he says he can understand why state budget writers might appear more sympathetic towards the Community College System, which has a presence in 12 communities around the state. After all, almost all of their students come from New Hampshire.  

"So, you may have known the family for fifteen years and now Jane or John is going to the community college and earning an associate’s degree," says McKay, "So there’s that immediacy that often isn’t there for the University System."

This topic is something of a Catch 22 for the University System, which includes UNH, Plymouth State, Keene State and Granite State College. Out-of-state student tuition helps to offset in-state tuition. But those out-of-state students are also less likely to stay in New Hampshire when they graduate. With the Community College System, on the other hand, the return on investment may be more readily apparent to lawmakers.

Ross Gittell, the Chancellor of the Community College System, says his students students, "tend to already stay in state without special incentive or special programs."

"So, we really do help keep students in-state," says Gittell, "and get them the skills and training they need to be employed in good jobs in the state."

Gittell explains that some of the community colleges’ most popular programs -- nursing, welding, automotive technology – turn out skilled workers who tend to stay close to home when they graduate.

The contributions of the state universities don’t go lost on lawmakers. The University of New Hampshire, for instance, gets regular praise for its agricultural work, among other areas.

But ultimately, for budget writers, it boils down to money. And as far as funding goes, Rep.Kenneth Weyler, a Republican from Kingston, recently recommended that Chancellor Todd Leach find a way to save some money before asking for more.

"My last two comments – to save money," says Weyler, "I suggest you do more online courses and bring more adjunct faculty on board and lay off some of the high paid part time work for full time pay."  

The budget numbers may be disappointing for the University System, but the final budget doesn’t get written until June. That leaves a bit more time to lobby the legislature.

Hannah McCarthy first came to NHPR an intern in 2015, returned as a Fellow the following year and then bounced around as a reporter and producer before landing as co-host of Civics 101. She has reported on everything from the opioid epidemic to State House politics to haunted woods of New Hampshire.

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