UNH President: State Needs to Give More Support to Students

Nashua — Cuts to state funding for higher education have been seen around the nation, but they’ve hit New Hampshire hardest. And University of New Hampshire President Mark Huddleston has a few ideas why.

“If you look at Wisconsin, or Ohio State, people love those universities, they see them as theirs,” he said. “We do the same thing for New Hampshire that those universities do for their states, but the level of attachment is really different. There’s not that same level of an emotional bond.”

During a meeting with The Telegraph’s editorial board yesterday, Huddleston discussed the historic cuts made to the University System of New Hampshire in 2011, the current funding talks ongoing in the state legislature, and the future of public higher education in the Granite State.

For every person who lives in New Hampshire, the state contributes $63.19 to support public higher education, making the state the worst in the nation. The state that ranks 49th, Arizona, offers double what New Hampshire does.

University officials are hoping their funding will be restored during the next biennium, a move supported in Gov. Maggie Hassan’s proposed budget and one that would allow university officials to freeze in-state tuition. But the House has drafted a proposed budget that includes about $12 million less for higher education than the governor’s proposal, and the future of higher education funding is still unknown.

Still, Huddleston said he’s seen a “180-degree turn” in support for public higher education in the Statehouse, and that he is hopeful funding will be restored.

But he said New Hampshire, like many other states around the nation, will likely have to get used to “a new normal” when it comes to tuition rates.

When the college president first entered higher education, families spent an average of 10 percent of their gross annual income to send a child to UNH, Huddleston said. Today, that number is closer to 50 percent, and is projected to rise over the coming years.

“That’s crazy. That’s simply unsupportable,” he said. “We need to do our share to keep costs down.”

But without more support from the state and its residents, he said, lowering tuition is a tall order, particularly for New Hampshire.

New England states, being some of the oldest in the country, have a plethora of small, private colleges and universities, Huddleston said. And with public higher education’s popularity growing later here than in some other areas, residents are simply more accepting of paying more for a college education.

Add that to the Granite State’s small government culture and what Huddleston sees as a lesser emotional attachment to the state’s public institutions, and “it’s not surprising (higher education) is at the front of the line” when cuts are needed.

“We’ve become a political football,” he said. “And that’s a national phenomenon.” At UNH, Huddleston said faculty and staff have dealt well with the challenges, cutting positions when necessary and working harder to fill the holes left by cuts.

Looking forward, Huddleston said the university is working to ensure the institution does its part to bring New Hampshire out of the recession, encouraging more students to enter into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields and building better partnerships between the university and the business world.

Part of that work means working more closely with K-12 education leaders, to ensure there are students interested in science and math fields once they enter college. New minors are also being developed, including one in entrepreneurship, to ensure that all students, even those in liberal arts programs, have opportunities to gain some business and technology experience. More emphasis has been placed on fundraising, and faculty members have been working to bring in more patents and licenses for their work, driving up revenue.

“That is the UNH way,” Huddleston said. “We suck it up and work harder.”

Still, Huddleston said he is worried that the state as a whole has not been working its hardest to ensure it maintains the “New Hampshire advantage.” Many of the conditions that helped the state better weather recessions through the years, including its educated population and trained workforce, are dependent on a strong public higher education system, he said. With the state’s population growing older, and fewer people moving to the state, some of those factors could be slipping away if residents and lawmakers grow too complacent, and fail to invest in the state’s future.

“These basic kind of elements are fraying in New Hampshire, and they don’t repair themselves,” he said. “I hope we all wake up to this before it’s too late.”