New Hampshire’s Coming Folly On Colleges

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu speaks during an interview during the National Governors Association … [+]

New Hampshire’s Governor recently announced plans to unify and merge the state’s four-year universities and colleges with the state’s traditionally two-year schools under a single state higher education system with a common leadership and funding structure.

The New Hampshire proposal is not unique. Reporting on the plan notes that Alaska, Georgia, Maine, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Connecticut and Wisconsin have all announced or completed similar merger plans.

A cynic will look at the states considering or enacting these plans and note that all but one – maybe Georgia is the lone exception – is facing certain declines in enrollments now and over the next decade or longer. In truth, probably Georgia is too. But the others – Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New Hampshire – are about to see dramatic student evaporations that, when they arrive, are guaranteed to strain budgets and undercut missions.

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As a purely conceptual thing, there’s nothing inherently bad or illogical about unifying a system. As a single entity, there will be opportunities to save money by streamlining licensing and scaling purchasing, as examples. And, even more exciting, there will be similar opportunities to reduce overhead and long term liabilities by firing people. Eliminating redundances, I think the number-crunchers call it. And once you take that human element out and make the equation strictly financial, a merger, unification, consolidation – whatever you prefer to call it – can make sense. Mergers force efficiencies.

Here’s the thing though – a merger of public schools in a given state isn’t likely to do anything to turn that enrollment crunch around. In fact, if you were betting, your smartest money would be that a newly unified state college system will only compound an already bad enrollment situation.

That’s likely to be the case because the enrollment exerts are pretty clear that flexibility and creativity are going to be the most important factors in addressing coming student shortfalls. To that point, no one has every heard of any organization being more nimble and more creative by being centralized and larger, especially a government one.

The sketched out plan in New Hampshire does say the state’s schools will keep their existing individual names and unique brands while still being rolled up under the direction of a single state policy board. I have no idea how that’s going to work, though it does sound nice.

But the issues and arguments about flexibility and coming student declines are sprinkles on the cupcake of what’s really driving the New Hampshire proposal. The cupcake is cuts. Republican Governor Chris Sununu wants to spend less on his state’s colleges and universities; and forcing them to merge in the name of efficiency sounds like a good way to cut education funding without sounding like he’s cutting education funding.

According to local reporting, the Governor’s budget calls for state spending on higher education in the would-be merged system, to go from $151.7 million in 2020 to $138 million in 2023. That’s a proposed cut of 9% in four years.

What priority does Governor Sununu propose for the funds he’s planning to save – that is to say, cut from – New Hampshire colleges? According to the Concord Monitor, tax cuts. They report, “Sununu is pressing for state lawmakers to reduce most of New Hampshire’s major taxes over the next two years – from business taxes to the meals and room tax to the state’s interest and dividends tax.” The paper quoted the Governor saying, “Tax cuts for everyone.”

In other words, it’s not that New Hampshire does not have the money to spend on its colleges and college students, it has decided it does not want to have the money to do so.

In the face of a certain decline in enrollments and a corresponding significant increase in college competition, centralizing your schools and cutting their funding seems more than magical thinking, it seems Willy Wonka nuts.

As is the general idea that efficiencies of scale in higher education yield anything except a temporary and shortsighted boost to the bottom line.

Scaling higher education to save a few bucks is counter-productive for the simple reason that most students don’t really want cheap education, they want good education. They want smaller classes, tenured and experienced faculty, top-tier research facilities, robust and active student support, an enriching campus experience and sterling education reputations. They want local employers to know and respect their local schools and local school leaders. Students – and parents too – want to be proud of where they are going to school, not brag about their school’s scale and efficiency.

Improving a product by making assembly and delivery more efficient works for Amazon and Wal Mart. It has never worked in education because education is one of the areas where you by and large get what you pay for – both as a student and as a state. If the Governor and New Hampshire lawmakers want to centralize their schools and spend less, that is exactly what they will get.

I write about education including education technology (edtech) and higher education. I’ve written about these topics and others in a variety of outlets including The

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