Brian Gottlob, an economist with PolEcon Research, said he recently saw a report that offered one solution to rising college tuitions: reducing administrative staffing levels.
“We don’t need another report like that,” Gottlob said.
Higher tuition and student debt levels can’t be fixed with single solutions. These issues are multi-layered, which Gottlob points out in his latest report, “Why Is Student Debt So High In New Hampshire? (And What Can We Do About It?),” in which he examines the myriad factors that result in New Hampshire students graduating with the nation’s highest level of debt. It would be easy to point to high and still increasing tuition rates, and that certainly is the biggest part of the problem, but it’s not the only puzzle piece.
Increases in student debt and tuition locally and nationally have gotten to the point where, Gottlob says, families are beginning to question the value of higher education. On average, a New Hampshire college student graduates with $32,440 in debt. That’s about $5,000 more than Massachusetts graduates and about $6,000 more than Maine graduates.
“It’s becoming a burden that’s too much to bear,” said René Drouin, president and CEO of Granite State Management & Resources. “It’s becoming out of reach for many.”
Where students go to school, how much financial aid they qualify for, and certainly how expensive and competitive schools are in this region all contribute to the levels of student debt. Additionally, a sizable percentage of New Hampshire families fall in between — they don’t earn enough money to be able to just pay tuition bills themselves, but they earn too much to obtain financial aid, he said.
“We cannot afford to be viewed negatively,” Gottlob said. “We have to be ahead of the curve on this issue.”
A highly competitive region as far as college goes, New England is probably never going to be a low-cost locale when it comes to college, since highly skilled, well-educated workers are in demand here. Gottlob said he believes private institutions will ultimately get costs under control, as the market will eventually force tuition to a more sustainable rate of growth. He says there is evidence that is beginning to happen. But the market has less impact on public colleges.
The most readily available strategy for families looking for a less-costly option is to attend an in-state, affordable, public college. But Gottlob says students in New Hampshire don’t necessarily have that option. In-state tuition and fees at New Hampshire public colleges have jumped to a level that is equal to 20 percent of the state’s median household income, and to 30 percent if room and board is included, compared to 16 percent nationally, according to the report. Couple that with students having difficulty obtaining need-based grants to attend public colleges, and you’ve got a recipe for high debt levels.
In turn, the average debt for a student graduating from one of New Hampshire’s public institutions is greater than the national average amount of debt for a student graduating from a private school. In New Hampshire, the average amount of debt for private school graduates is only slightly higher than for public school graduates, according to the report.
With New Hampshire ranking near the bottom nationally in terms of levels of state support for higher education, Gottlob said the legislature could take a more active role in dictating purposes for taxpayer money.
“Few, if any, lawmakers know enough about revenues and expenditures of public colleges to be able to estimate how different levels of state support might affect tuition levels,” Gottlob wrote in the report. “Low levels of state support are offered as explanation for high tuition levels at New Hampshire’s public colleges, but there are no assurances that increased funding will produce the more affordable, in-state, public institution New Hampshire lacks.”
Gottlob suggests lawmakers explicitly link state aid to expenditures and uses, which he said could increase lawmaker confidence that “choosing support for higher education...would produce greater benefits.”
Shannon Reid, director of communications for the Community College System of New Hampshire, pointed out that community colleges in New Hampshire are relatively under-utilized compared to the rest of the country. Nationally, almost half of undergrads attend community colleges, while in New Hampshire about 25 percent of college students attend community college.
Community college officials in New Hampshire have been pushing programs that allow high schools students to take community college courses and obtain college credit, thus reducing the cost of a college education. Officials have also been pushing students to attend community college for a year or two before enrolling at a four-year school to take advantage of the lower cost.