NH Public Policy
New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies

Business NH Magazine: Defining Educational Outcomes

March 10, 2014

by STEVE NORTON and DANIEL BARRICK

For Business NH Magazine

After years of debate in Concord, NH’s community colleges and public universities have undergone several major changes recently, and policymakers face considerable questions about higher education in NH.

Chief among them: What is the state’s goal for public colleges and universities? Is it workforce development for state businesses? Subsidies for in-state students who can’t afford tuition at private colleges? Economic development for the state? Some blend of these? The answers to these questions will have important implications for funding, but also for how public higher education institutions can or should be held accountable for outcomes.

Among the changes experienced by NH’s colleges and universities are dropping freshman enrollment rates within the University System, from 45 percent in 2005 to 33 percent in 2012, while tuition has increased across all state public higher education institutions, including a nearly 40 percent rise in tuition at the University System since the 2007-08 academic year. New Hampshire students are graduating with some of the highest levels of student debt in the country. Declining numbers of high school graduates in the past decade have put pressure on the need to recruit students from out of state. And continued financial pressures promise to keep this issue at the fore of future state budgetary debates.

Policymakers, business leaders and higher education officials agree a well-educated, highly skilled workforce strengthens the state economically and makes it more resilient. But there is still little concrete understanding about the exact value that NH’s public colleges and universities provide to the state and student, and how best to allocate public resources to meet those goals.

Nationally, there have been several efforts to better understand the value that colleges and universities provide. The Obama administration has proposed linking federal student aid to student outcomes. A coalition of 18 colleges and universities–including Southern NH University–has been developing a way to use data (including cost per degree and employment outcomes for graduates) for measuring value.

In many ways, this is uncharted territory. The idea of measuring the success of a university by comparing, for instance, graduates’ salaries may strike some as contrary to the values of higher education. But quantifying the links between student outcomes, public costs and institutional goals would improve our understanding of what role colleges and universities play in the broader economic and social life of the state. Higher education has been a critical piece of NH’s economic advantage. For decades, the state has attracted a better-educated population than the rest of the country, with 46 percent of NH residents holding some type of college degree—one of the highest rates in the nation. But as research by the Center for Public Policy Studies and others has shown, NH’s educational edge eroded during the recession. Other regions of the country are attracting higher rates of educated migrants. Will increasing state support to post-secondary institutions help reverse that? Are there alternative uses for those public dollars that might achieve the same outcome?

While state support for public higher education in NH has increased in the most recent budget cycle after several years of cuts or flat funding, overall state funding remains roughly equal to pre-recession levels. In addition, the division of public funding between the public four-year and two-year systems has shifted significantly since the mid 2000s. The Community College System of NH receives a much bigger share of total state support than it did a decade ago—37 percent of all state higher education spending this year compared to 22 percent in 2003-04. Does this reflect a conscious decision by policymakers? Is it part of a larger goal in allocating state resources?

Acceptance rates at University System schools have risen significantly over this same period, while the percentage of accepted students who eventually enroll has fallen. It is unclear what relation this trend bears to recent increases in tuition or whether it reflects increased competition among colleges and universities in the Northeast for a shrinking student population. For most NH policymakers, the debate over higher education still remains focused simply on finances. Policymakers need a better grounding in the trends shaping NH’s colleges and universities as assets in the wider economic and social fabric of the state and the results they achieve for students and the public. Only then will we achieve a shared understanding of the role that higher education can and should play in the state.