‘High risk and low reward’: Higher education leaders weigh in on proposed college system merger

On Friday, March 12, lawmakers heard testimony on Gov. Chris Sununu’s proposed merger of the Community College System of New Hampshire and the University System of New Hampshire as part of the proposed state budget. The proposal would unify the Boards of Trustees of the University and Community College Systems in New Hampshire into a single governing body, with the goal of merging the institutions into a single “College and University System” with a new chancellor by January 1, 2022.

The two higher education systems are anticipating a shrinking number of potential students in the next decade, contributing to an anticipated $60 million drop in revenue by 2023. The University System, which includes the University of New Hampshire, Keene State College, Plymouth State University, Granite State College, and the UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law, also stated that they are facing more competition for students from out-of-state institutions and increased tuition costs. 

Subcommittees of both the House Education Committee and the House Finance Committee had separate work sessions on the proposed college system merger. 

Read the NH Alliance for College and Career Readiness’ literature review on college mergers here

Joe Morone, the University System’s Board Chair, told the House Finance subcommittee that the merger could help both institutions start a joint conversation around addressing these challenges. 

Susan Huard, the Interim Chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire, noted that the two systems already work together in a combined task force to address these challenges. 

Edward McKay, former Chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire and Director of  New Hampshire’s Higher Education Commission, addressed the House Education work group, raising questions around accessibility, accreditation, and the vision of the single organization: Other states that have merged, or attempted to merge, have found that their community college systems have suffered as a result, he said. 

“I have characterized this initiative as high risk and low reward,” said McKay, who served as Chancellor of USNH from 2009 to 2013 and worked for the University System for 37 years

Several other states have undertaken similar mergers. Many times, community college programs were the first to be cut, tuition tended to rise, and the focus of the community colleges shifted away from local and regional workforce and student needs. Vermont and Minnesota walked back their proposals to merge their systems, and other states have spent years in planning the often complex and nuanced process — a stark contrast to the current proposal to begin the process on July 1, 2021. 

Questions and considerations from lawmakers

Members of the two subcommittees raised a number of questions about the proposal, including concerns over the timeline, the long-term implications, and the effects that the proposal may have on student access and statewide workforce development plans.  

Key takeaways from the subcommittee meetings include:

  • Research provided to Division II Finance showed that such a merger adversely impacts community colleges in meeting the distinct needs of their student bodies, which often include a high number of adult learners, New Americans, and non-traditional students.
  • Lawmakers expressed concern that a merger could compromise the unique brand and missions each system fulfills. The state’s flagship university, UNH, is a Research 1 institution that has expanded its recruitment to include an increased focus on out-of-state students, while CCSNH focuses on local and regional student and workforce needs, and is a hub for training programs, apprenticeships, and other local programs.  A change to brand and mission of each institution could impact the recruitment efforts of these programs.   
  • There are committees already underway exploring matters related to cost savings, the transfer of credits, and seamless systems for students.  CCSNH and USNH have created a “Synergies Committee” to identify areas of collaboration to improve student outcomes and reduce expenses.  
  • Questions surfaced on why the Governor is proposing a new “super board” when through state law the Public Higher Education Study Committee already exists.  This is a permanent legislative study group charged with examining the goals, purposes, organization, and financing of public higher education in NH.  
  • The merger has been elevated as a way to streamline the student experience — allowing “seamless” credit transfers. However, experts told lawmakers that barriers in credit transfers are often due to individual program accreditation at the department level, not school policy, and the merger would likely have no additional impact on the credit transfer process. 
  • CCSNH and USNH are among the most efficient state-run higher education institutions in the country with very low overhead, and there appears to be little or no research that supports substantial cost savings with the proposed merger.  
  • Lawmakers had concerns with the timeline of the proposal: The Boards would be merged on July 1, a single Board of Trustees created by August 30, and a new chancellor installed by January 1. However, the proposal does not include a governance plan, a shared vision, objectives, or other guardrails to ensure that the outcome meets the best interests of both systems. 
  • Lawmakers also had concerns that the plan would be drafted by the single Board, solely appointed by the Governor through a political process, and chancellor — the bill, as written, does not include opportunities for input by students, faculty, administrators, business leaders, or the public to weigh in.  
  • Both systems are currently led by interim chancellors. If the vision of the institution(s) continues to be unknown as a unified board explores the matter, it will affect the state’s ability to hire a chancellor.  It was suggested that the current search be suspended and another interim be hired.  

The NH Alliance for College and Career Readiness is a network fo K-12 and post-secondary education, business, industry, and nonprofit sectors. The Alliance works to improve college and career readiness opportunities and outcomes on behalf of all New Hampshire families. The Alliance is an independent program of Reaching Higher NH. For more information about The Alliance, including its Steering Committee and membership, visit www.theNHAlliance.org