Why Are So Many Students Leaving N.H. For College? Cost Is A Big Reason

Aug 19, 2019

Pamela Rogers at her home in Keene.
Credit Jordyn Haime for NHPR

Pamela Rogers is a mother of four, who, lately, has the entire house to herself.

“I’m getting a little taste of what it’s like to be an empty nester. I don’t really care for it, but ...” Pam says.

Three of her kids have left home. One is in the military, one’s on a mission trip, another in college in Idaho.

Her youngest – who’s currently visiting her brother out west – plans to go to college outside of New Hampshire, too.

All of her kids grew up in Keene, right around the corner from Keene State College. But none of them even applied there.

“I think the big thing is the cost. If they can go out of state for the same price, there’s not a lot keeping kids here,” Pam said.

The Rogers family are not the only ones that feel that way. According to the University System of New Hampshire, 61% of the state’s college students are choosing to leave New Hampshire for college; that’s more than almost any other state.

In-state tuition is meant to make college affordable for in-state students, but New Hampshire’s in-state tuition is among the highest in the country.

Tuition at Keene State is nearly $12,000 a year, and that’s without room and board.  At UNH in Durham, tuition is nearly $19,000 per year.

Pam’s son Daniel, who studies biology teaching, pays $10,000 a year as an out-of-state student at Brigham Young University in Idaho. That includes his housing. He got his tuition at a slight discount because of his religious affiliation, but he says even without that, leaving the state just made sense.

“I was looking at the cost of schools here and the cost of schools out west and they were all just cheaper for what seemed like the same quality of education,” Daniel said.

The people who run New Hampshire’s public university system know that cost is a problem.

Chancellor Todd Leach says the reason tuition is high is simple: the university system isn’t getting enough state funding.

“We’ve been flat-funded for five years and other states around us have been investing more and we haven’t been able to make that same kind of investment to be able to raise tuition or keep tuition below inflation levels,” Leach said.

State funding for higher education has actually been declining across the country since the 2008 recession, and New Hampshire is no exception. In 2011, legislators signed off on a budget that cut the state’s higher education funding almost in half, from $100 million per year, down to $51 million.

Eight years later, the university system hasn’t fully regained those lost funds; for the past five, USNH has been getting $81 million per year. That’s not enough when inflation goes up every year and campuses are in need of repair, Leach says.

Ken Weyler, a long-time Republican lawmaker representing Rockingham, supports reductions in state funding. He says there’s a lack of transparency around what the university system is spending state funds on.

“The reason we don’t give them more money is because when we’ve given them money, they’ve raised everybody’s pay, so you really haven’t saved anything for tuition. You tell us give us money so we can keep the tuition lower, we give you money, you don’t keep the tuition lower. At best you keep it flat…And at various times we’ve called for the wages of the faculty and we find them outrageous,” Weyler said.

While the University of New Hampshire’s administrators are some of the highest paid public officials in the state, their salaries, and the salaries of full-time teaching faculty, are average when compared to other New England states.

Democratic State Senator Jeanne Dietsch has been part of an effort to this session to pass legislation aimed at keeping young people in New Hampshire. A bill recently passed establishes an incentive program that would pay college graduates to stay in New Hampshire after graduation. Another establishes a “sunny day fund” that will set aside more state funding for research grants; that bill is still pending motions in the Senate.

Dietsch is also a businessperson who who’s seen New Hampshire’s population of younger workers decline, and thinks increasing state support of higher education will help.

“Businesspeople in the legislature are being very short-sighted and they’re willing to take a dollar today and pay $10 tomorrow and I think it’s very foolish,” Dietsch said.

This debate is particularly charged given the state’s aging population. Not only is New Hampshire now the second oldest state in the nation, but enrollment in the state’s public colleges has dropped by 9.4 percent this year, according to USNH.

Chancellor Leach says he’s seeing the impact on the wider economy, too.

“We’re seeing it very directly in terms of conversations we’re having with companies that are telling us that they’re considering expanding operations outside of New Hampshire because of the concern that they won’t have the workforce,” Leach said.

Leach says the first place state funding goes is to lowering in-state students’ tuition through scholarships, one of the most well-known being the Granite Guarantee. That scholarship sends students who are eligible for Pell grants to the state’s public four-year colleges tuition-free for all four years, as long as they continue to remain eligible.

But that program is running out of money, too.

“It’s one of the things that we’re very much hoping to get some increased support from the state around because that will make a difference for us. We’re really on the margins, if you will, in terms of being able to continue that program,” Leach said.

The university system is expecting a slight increase in funding from the state once the new budget passes. If that comes through, Leach says, state colleges could freeze tuition for fiscal year 2020.

But that would do little to keep the Rogers family in New Hampshire. Pam says she’d like to have her kids living near her in Keene, but she knows that’s not what’s likely to happen.

“It would be a nice desire, but I know them. And honestly we’ll probably move closer to them when the time comes…and so again that’s more families leaving the state.”

For Pam, who works as a high school tutor, and her husband, who works for an insurance company, there are other opportunities for them outside of New Hampshire, too.