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Hassan’s Plan Raises Hopes At Universities

Chancellor: Budget Cuts Harmed Image of N.H. Public Higher Ed

Students walk to classes at Plymouth State University, Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 in Plymouth, N.H.  In her Budget Address this week Gov. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., announced a plan to boost funding for the state's public colleges and universities, which was drastically cut by the previous Republican-led Legislature. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Students walk to classes at Plymouth State University, Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 in Plymouth, N.H. In her Budget Address this week Gov. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., announced a plan to boost funding for the state's public colleges and universities, which was drastically cut by the previous Republican-led Legislature. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Concord — An anecdote Gov. Maggie Hassan used in calling for increased spending on higher education was telling, though perhaps not in the way she intended.

In seeking $165 million for the state university system over two years, Hassan told lawmakers on Thursday that it’s unacceptable that New Hampshire’s public universities have some of the highest in-state tuitions in the country. And she described meeting a Londonderry woman whose daughter enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Lowell because “Massachusetts’ out-of-state tuition is lower than New Hampshire’s in-state tuition.”

While it is true that the annual tuition rate for out-of-state students at UMass Lowell is lower than the in-state tuition rate at the University of New Hampshire, the advantage disappears when mandatory fees are included. Out-of-state students at UMass Lowell pay $24,900 in tuition and fees per year, compared to the $16,400 UNH charges in-state students.

But because the student Hassan mentions lives in Londonderry, she likely took advantage of a special discount UMass Lowell offers to residents of a dozen southern New Hampshire towns. The “proximity program” drops the cost of tuition and fees to $18,500 for those majoring in all but a few subjects.

According to a UMass Lowell spokeswoman, 655 undergraduates hail from New Hampshire, including 500 who pay the proximity rate.

Those numbers illustrate why New Hampshire needs to do more to keep those students, said Todd Leach, interim chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire.

“They’re making that effort, they’re aggressive in reaching over the border,” he said. “We need to be able to position ourselves in such a way that our students can see that the value proposition is here, that staying here is a good option.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 55 percent of the New Hampshire residents enrolled as freshman in four-year-degree programs in 2010 were attending college out of state, the fourth highest percentage in the nation.

But Leach hopes that trend could change if lawmakers go along with Hassan’s budget plan, which includes $75 million for the university system in fiscal year 2014 and $90 million the following year.

That would bring funding back to almost what it was in 2011, before the Republican-led Legislature slashed the amount nearly in half. And it’s enough to allow UNH, Plymouth State University, Keene State College and Granite State College to freeze in-state tuition for two years in exchange, Leach said.

While state funding accounts for less than 10 percent of the operating budgets at the four institutions that make up the university system, the cuts fueled a misconception among the general public that tuition would have to go way up or quality would go down, he said.

“We heard from students and guidance counselors and others that their impression was that the public system was not going to be getting adequate funding, and therefore they had concerns that it was not going to be a good place to send students,” Leach said.

Mark Rubinstein, vice president for student and academic services at UNH, said nearly 300 fewer in-state students enrolled as freshman this fall than did the previous year, while non-resident enrollment jumped. That suggests in-staters might have been feeling uncertain about the university’s future, while out-of-staters who were less likely to hear about the Statehouse debates based their decisions on what they heard from the university and saw during their campus visits, he said.

Apart from the funding issue, lawmakers also considered a bill last session to eliminate the USNH chancellor’s office, which may have created the misconception that the colleges and universities themselves were in danger of being dismantled, he said.

“Our hope is that in the coming year, New Hampshire students and families will recognize that UNH remains strong and represents an excellent educational opportunity,” he said.

Rep. Robbie Parsons, a Republican from Milton, who sponsored the bill to eliminate the chancellor’s office, said yesterday he agrees with Hassan that education — at all levels — should be a priority. But he said the money just isn’t there.

“It sounds good, but where is she going to get the money?” he said. “I would love to see everything she said happen, but the state can’t afford it.”

Hassan, a Democrat, included $80 million in her budget from gambling licensing fees that lawmakers would have to replace with other revenue or cut programs if they failed to approve the building of a casino.

The House has never passed casino legislation, and Parsons, who opposes gambling, said even if it passes, he doubts it will bring in as much money as supporters hope.

“I don’t think the figures are going to materialize,” he said.