‘Alternative model’ would pause higher education merger in favor of a streamlined Coordinating Council

A new proposal would streamline higher education in New Hampshire by creating a Higher Education Coordinating Council, which would build clear pathways for students, strengthen collaboration, and maintain the University System and Community College System’s distinct missions and purposes. The proposal, which was introduced by Community College System Interim Chancellor Susan Huard, will be considered by the Senate Finance Committee in the coming weeks as it continues to build the state’s operating budget. 

Governor Chris Sununu’s state budget proposal included a plan to merge the University System and Community College System into one unified system by July 1, 2021. The University System includes the state’s four colleges across six campuses, while the Community College System includes seven community colleges and five academic centers.

There was considerable pushback on the Governor’s plan from House lawmakers, higher education leaders, and others, who feared that a merger would result in a loss of the community colleges’ mission and purpose. Instead of a merger, House lawmakers proposed slowing down the process by forming a study committee that would address the concerns and, if the committee felt it was appropriate, merge the systems by July 2023.   

The Community College’s Coordinating Council model would go one step further, and would keep the two systems separate but serve as a unified body for planning, coordination, and accountability.

“We think it’s in the best interest of this state that the Community College System and the University System work together,” Huard told lawmakers on Tuesday, April 27. “We each have distinct missions, but we need to be partners.”

Read: The NH Alliance’s Research on Community Colleges, System Mergers, and the NH Proposal 

The new Higher Education Coordinating Council would comprise leaders of both systems that would be accountable for:

  1. Building and enhancing clear student transfer pathways, with required progress/milestones to meet;
  2. Developing operating and capital budget requests that are complementary, not competitive;
  3. Deepening present work on synergies such as procurement, contracts, IT, and real estate;
  4. Coordinating in other areas of planning and service, such as the state business attraction efforts; and, 
  5. Reporting regularly to the Public Higher Education Study Committee, established by state law, and the Governor. 

“We think this approach honors the systems’ differing missions, student needs, local impacts, and operating structures while creating a formal vehicle for accountability and collaboration,” said Huard. 

Differing Views on the Merger

The University System Board of Trustees has been supportive of the Governor’s plan to merge the two systems. The University System is projecting a $70 million loss in revenue due largely to declining enrollment and increased financial need. New Hampshire has the lowest amount of state support for its University System, which results in one of the highest student tuition rates in the country. 

Joe Morone, the University System’s Board Chairman, has been advocating for the merger, saying that if lawmakers wait, “our systems are going to wither on the vine.”

The Community College System, however, doesn’t necessarily share the same concerns over enrollment. Its mission to build pathways to meet regional labor market demands means that its programs are tailored to student and workforce needs. 

The student makeup of community colleges is “not a smaller version of the population of a four-year residential college,” Huard said. Community college students are often adult learners who typically return throughout their careers for upskilling, additional training, and other programming, meaning that their enrollment rates are “agile,” she said.

Lawmakers and higher education leaders have pointed to other states that have merged systems, and have found that their community colleges suffer as a result. 

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

Next Steps

The Senate Finance Committee is now considering three proposals:

  1. Governor Sununu’s proposal to merge both systems’ Board of Trustees and funding streams by July 1, 2021, and have a unified Chancellor by next year;
  2. The House’s plan to create a study committee of lawmakers to consider the merger process and the questions and concerns surrounding the proposal, and craft legislation to merge the two systems by July 1, 2023; and, 
  3. The Community College System’s recommendation to create a Higher Education Coordinating Council that would keep the two systems separate, but serve as a unified body for planning, coordination, and accountability. 

The Committee will work to include one of the proposals (or, its own) into the state budget, which is expected to go before the full Chamber for a vote by late May. 

The public has an opportunity to weigh in on this and other budget-related issues during the Committee’s public hearing on Tuesday, May 4. There are two opportunities to testify: at 1 p.m. and at 6 p.m. Instructions on how to testify are available on the General Court website

This article was written by the NH Alliance for College and Career Readiness, a project of Reaching Higher NH. The Alliance is a diverse and collaborative group focused on bridging policy, communications, and engagement efforts to help all NH students graduate college and career ready. Alliance members include representatives from K-12 education, postsecondary education, business & industry, and the nonprofit sector. Learn more at www.TheNHAlliance.org 

Read more about the proposal from The NH Alliance for College and Career Readiness and other sources: