NH Public Policy
New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies

Public Colleges, Public Dollars: Higher Education in NH

Executive Summary

Date: March 20th, 2014

New Hampshire’s public higher education systems have been the source of considerable debate through the years, much of it tied to questions of public financing. But the state’s higher education landscape has seen numerous recent changes, not limited to questions of public support, including changes in enrollment trends, tuition, and student debt, among others.

Nationally, there have been several recent efforts to better understand the value that colleges and universities – both public and private – provide to their students and society at large. This report provides a data foundation to further similar conversations in New Hampshire. We document current trends on both the state and national level – including measures of costs, state financial support, student outcomes and enrollment – in an attempt to provide more context for the higher education debate. Our larger goal is to better inform a discussion about the value provided by the state’s institutions of higher learning.

Among the notable points in this report:

• While state support for public higher education in New Hampshire increased in the most recent budget cycle, after several years of cuts or flat funding, overall funding remains roughly equal to pre-Recession levels.

• The division of public funding between the public four-year and two-year systems has shifted significantly since the mid 2000s, with the Community College System of New Hampshire receiving a much bigger share of total state support.

• Acceptance rates at USNH schools have risen significantly over the past five years, while the percentage of accepted students who enroll at USNH schools has fallen sharply over the same period. It is unclear what relation this trend bears to recent increases in tuition.

Underlying the trends outlined here is an unresolved question: What is the role of public higher education in New Hampshire? Are community colleges and public universities designed to aid workforce development for state-based businesses? Are they intended mainly to provide access to post-secondary education for students who cannot afford private school tuition? Are they supposed to be economic development engines for their respective regions and the state as a whole?

For many New Hampshire policymakers, the debate over higher education still remains focused simply on finances: how much to allocate to the campuses in the state budget every two years. But if they want to connect higher education fiscal policy to New Hampshire’s broader strategic goals, policymakers need a better grounding of the basic trends shaping the state’s public colleges and universities. Understanding the interaction of state appropriations, tuition, financial aid, and student enrollment is critical to the development of the state’s priorities for public higher education. These trends, and the policy questions they raise, will also shape New Hampshire’s economy, as the state looks to replace an aging workforce with new generations of skilled, educated workers.