Published Date Written by Barbara TetreaultThe North Country should support state funding for higher education
By Brooks Payette
When I graduated from Berlin High School, I never imagined my future would include winning a prestigious national scholarship, working at the White House and becoming a commissioned officer in the Air Force. There are multiple factors that led to each opportunity, but there is one primary reason each became a reality; my education from the University of New Hampshire. Higher education was a life catalyst for this North Country native. Experiencing this first hand, I believe it is crucial the New Hampshire legislature adequately funds higher education to help ensure college is affordable for North Country students and families.
Last year, the legislature cut $100 million from the University System of New Hampshire and lawmakers are currently determining how much to restore. The cuts, including $32.4 million to UNH, were made despite New Hampshire ranking last in the nation on per capita spending on public higher education. In fact, if the state doubled its appropriation, New Hampshire would still rank last in the nation. The cut compounded a growing problem for Granite State families seeking to pay for a college education. Currently, New Hampshire has the highest in-state tuition in the nation and its graduates have the highest average debt load, $32,440.
The University of New Hampshire has requested full restoration of funding in turn for freezing in-state tuition for two years. Governor Maggie Hassan recognizes the importance of higher education and proposed 90 percent restoration, but the House Finance Committee voted to cut her proposal by $6 million in each year of the biennium. The Board of the Trustees and the four presidents of the USNH institutions have pledged to freeze tuition for two years and increase financial aid for in-state students should funding be restored.
Ironically, New Hampshire excels in investing in K-12 education and preparing students for college. The state invests more per student than the national average and scores above the national average on test scores at all grade levels. The state also boasts the nation's fourth highest graduation rate at 86 percent, 10 percent higher than the national average. However, preparing students for college is a lost cause if they can't afford to attend college. A student's merits should determine their college eligibility, not their parents' bank account. As a society, we are better off when we send the brightest minds to college, not the most privileged. The state needs to approach higher education as an investment instead of a budget line expense or another burden to taxpayers. Failing to do so in an economy demanding more skilled workers and a state losing its younger population is penny wise and pound foolish.
North Country residents should be concerned with keeping higher education affordable for more than just providing opportunity for its youth. It is critical to rebuilding the North Country and giving its citizens the opportunity to find steady employment, raise a family and invest in the community. As the region recovers, many quality paying jobs require a college degree, including the prison systems, education system, municipality positions and the health care industry. The restoration of funding is the first step in ensuring more North Country residents can qualify for the employment opportunities.
Higher education has expanded my horizons, but also allowed me to give back to the Berlin community through fundraising initiatives such as the Brown School playground project. My hope is that many more North Country students are afforded the same opportunity to change their life, their community and perhaps even more. Please join the mission to keep UNH and other state colleges affordable by contacting your legislator or becoming an advocate of UNH Works at http://www.unh.edu/president/higher-education-works-new-hampshire.
Brooks Payette is a Berlin native and a Class of 2000 graduate of Berlin High School. He is currently a graduate student at UNH and is a member of the UNH Works Advocacy Council.