Amendment would slow down college merger and ensure members had expertise in higher ed

Under a new amendment, the Higher Education Merger Assessment Commission (HEMAC) would have until January 2022 to form recommendations about if and how to merge the state’s University System and Community College System, and commission members would have to have expertise in higher education. 

The amendment, proposed by Senator Lou D’Allesandro, is expected to be voted on by the Senate Finance Committee as part of its state budget deliberations on Friday, May 14. 

The amendment would extend the deadline for the commission’s work from six months to 18 months. In addition, the amendment defines the specific expertise of the members of the commission, which is tasked with studying whether merging the state’s two higher education systems would be in the best interest of students and the state. 

Currently, representatives of the University System, Community College System, and Governor would choose the members they wish to have on the committee, regardless of experience or knowledge of the topic. The amendment requires members of the commission to have experience in higher education governance or administration, or “extensive experience” in two- or four-year institutions. 

The merger proposal has been a sticking point for budget writers this session. It was a high priority for Governor Chris Sununu, but the House proposed a six-month slowdown of the process. The proposal is now in the hands of the Senate Finance Committee, which is working under a deadline to deliver a full state budget, including how to handle the merger, before the Senate’s June 3 deadline. 

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.

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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 is one of the reasons the universities have some 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,” CCSNH Interim President Susan Huard said during an agency presentation to the Senate Finance Committee last month. 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,” Ed McKay, who served as Chancellor of USNH from 2009 to 2013 and worked for the University System for 37 years, said during testimony before lawmakers in March. 

Next Steps

The Senate Finance Committee will meet on Friday, May 14 at 1 p.m. to review amendments related to education issues, and is expected to take up the merger issue. The meeting will be live streamed here via Zoom

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 

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