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How to minimize higher education investment in five months or less

Earlier this week, New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu signed an executive order establishing the Public Higher Education Taskforce. If the state of higher education concerns you now, wait until you read Sununu’s executive order.

According to the executive order, highlights of the group’s mission include:

  • Investigate the alignment of the state’s community college and university systems and the state’s anticipated needs for how post-secondary education will drive timely advancements for NH citizens
  • Avoid duplication of academic programs
  • Streamline administrative costs and obligations

The group will begin meeting within 30 days and will deliver a final report on its findings no later than March 31, 2024. Unless otherwise directed, the group will disband by April 30. It sounds as though another Republican car crash directed at public higher education is in the works in the Granite State.

For context, the state has a combined total of 7 public community colleges and 6 universities, as well as 11 private universities. For good measure, eight of the state’s 19 defunct colleges and universities have closed within the last 15 years. Among the justifications that Sununu uses to take this bold step are the declining enrollments at New Hampshire’s public universities.

Of course, Sununu doesn’t mention that New Hampshire has the third-lowest per-student higher education funding commitment among all US states. The result, of course, is that 7 out of 10 New Hampshire students end up with $40,000 in student loan debt – the highest average educational debt in the nation – after graduation. (Fifty-eight percent of Michigan students graduated with an average debt of about $30,000.)

New Hampshire isn’t the only New England state to flirt with consolidation. Connecticut is working through its first year of a consolidated community college system. (It’s not going well.)

NH rethinks its approach to higher education

It’s pretty clear that in some political landscapes, higher education will have a much more limited role going forward. The game is less about invention and re-invention, and more about spending as little as humanly possible on a limited menu of options for a select group of people. The working strategy is to strangle higher education. Cranking up attendance costs to limit access, reducing academic choice, and restricting availability are apparently part of the new playbook, which will be available in New Hampshire just in time for April Fool’s Day.

I’m not opposed to lowering administrative costs, renegotiating vendor contracts, and generally reducing expenses. Higher education trustees who do not insist upon this are failing their fiduciary responsibilities. I’m also not opposed to requiring community colleges to place construction projects on the local ballot for approval. Seeking a guaranteed revenue stream for repayment of public debt is the only responsible approach to construction on campus.

Consolidating institutions, limiting their academic programming, and focusing on workforce development to the near exclusion of innovation crosses a very undemocratic line. Hopefully, that landscape never makes its way to Michigan, but it is good counsel to remember that elections have consequences.

Photo Credit: James Walsh , via Flickr