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New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu wants to merge the state's public universities and community colleges into one system.

Shannon Finney/Contributor/Getty Images

Elected officials in New Hampshire are formalizing a proposal to operate the state's public universities and community colleges under one system.

The state on Tuesday released details about a proposed merger that would combine the University System of New Hampshire with the Community College System of New Hampshire under one system called the New Hampshire College and University System. Governor Chris Sununu, a Republican, introduced the proposal last month as part of his budget for the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years.

The two systems are still reviewing the newly released details, but they appear to fit in a framework Sununu laid out during a State of the State address and in subsequent remarks. The two boards would consolidate in July, and the new board would have a year to plan the merger before the systems’ budgets are combined the following summer.

According to Sununu's budget proposal, the new system would be allocated $140 million from the state in fiscal year 2022 and $138 million in fiscal year 2023. This fiscal year, the two systems were allocated a combined $143.8 million. In addition to cost savings for the state, Sununu hopes a consolidated higher education system will expand opportunities for students at two- and four-year colleges and improve transfer between the institutions.

The state Legislature will have to approve the proposal before the merger would officially begin, and it will likely consider the measure in the next few months.

Currently, the university system includes four institutions that serve more than 21,500 students. The community college system includes seven colleges and serves about 26,000 students.

Both systems have been hesitant to talk at length about the merger plan until more details were released. When the proposal was first announced, the University System of New Hampshire's Board of Trustees issued a statement in support, calling the idea the “best possible approach to securing, for the long term, the state’s capacity to offer all its residents affordable, accessible, and diverse pathways to a high-quality education.”

The community college and university systems have talked to each other on and off for a while about a potential merger, officials from each system said during a House Finance Committee meeting last week. Early on, the university system's board expressed support for consolidation but put conversations about a potential merger aside to focus on system-specific matters, Catherine Provencher, chief administrative officer at the University System of New Hampshire, said during the meeting.

Consolidation conversations among community college board members have been more cautious, said Susan Huard, interim chancellor of the system. They wanted to be careful about crafting a merger plan and avoid the mistakes other states have made in trying to consolidate their higher education institutions.

“When we look at other mergers that have happened, the first voice that goes away is the voice of the community colleges,” Huard said. “So you can understand why we have a concern here.”

Huard comes from Connecticut, which has been slowly consolidating its public higher education for years. The sluggish progress in Connecticut has somewhat colored her perspective, she said.

But New Hampshire doesn’t have the time to study the mistakes and successes of other states, Provencher said.

“Higher education is changing at a rate that we can’t keep up with, and we need to be looking forward,” she said during the meeting.

Faced with declining enrollments and shrinking state funding, a handful of states have completed or proposed public system mergers in the past several years. Sununu’s proposal is similar to recent public higher education system consolidations in Connecticut and Wisconsin. Vermont is also looking to join several of its colleges. Pennsylvania offered up a plan last summer to merge groups of two or three colleges.

New Hampshire is no stranger to the demographic woes that propelled these states to consider consolidation plans.

“Going forward, there are demographic trends that show that student enrollment within both systems are facing sharp decline in the coming years,” Sununu wrote in a letter to the community college system's Board of Trustees.

New Hampshire is one of several states that will be hardest hit by the so-called demographic cliff -- an upcoming drop in the number of white, upper-middle-class and traditional-age college students, who are often able to pay the highest rates to attend college. A significant number of less selective colleges in the Northeast and Midwest especially count on these types of students, and experts say if institutions fail to respond to demographic shifts, they’ll likely face steep enrollment declines beginning in the mid-2020s and into the 2030s.

A single higher education system would allow the 11 New Hampshire institutions to share resources -- likely saving the state money -- and improve transfer pathways and opportunities for students, Sununu wrote. This year in particular highlighted inefficiencies between the two systems.

“We also see the challenges and inefficiencies in maintaining 11 systems rather than one integrated collaborative approach to public higher education,” he wrote in his letter. “The last year is a perfect example. Each system had to address the challenges of the pandemic individually, without the opportunity to jointly leverage resources as the institutions worked to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19.”

The community college system has already successfully streamlined some processes between its colleges, Huard said during the House Finance meeting. Recently, the system brought all seven of its colleges onto the same learning management system contract, which saved the system $200,000. Officials are also looking at sharing insurance plans and improving transfer pathways within the system.

The first step in the merger proposal is to combine the university system's and community college system's existing boards in July. The new board would include five members from the university system, five members from the community college system, five members appointed by the governor and eight ex officio members who are already part of the separate boards, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said. The new system would be overseen by one chancellor.

Under the merger proposal, each individual college and university would maintain its own campus and brand.

The new board’s first directive will be to draft legislation to improve transfer between the institutions. In his letter, Sununu was eager to make it easier for students to take courses at several New Hampshire colleges.

“Why shouldn’t a student at Nashua Community College also be able to do a research and development project at the University of New Hampshire? Why shouldn’t a Plymouth State student be able to take summer nursing classes at White Mountain Community College? Allowing students the ease of creating their own pathway in education will be the defining characteristic of this modernized 21st century system,” he wrote.

Sununu proposed combining the two systems’ budgets at the beginning of fiscal year 2023.

Kate Murray, a state representative from Rockingham County, was concerned about the public perception of the merger proposal and its short timeline. Leaving college employees and students out of conversations about combining the systems could torpedo the plan, she argued during the House committee meeting. She remembered a merger attempt between two private institutions, the New Hampshire Institute of Art and Southern New Hampshire University, which failed in 2014 after students and employees voiced concerns about the proposal.

“I remember the disaster when the art institute first tried to merge with SNHU. No one was prepared; no one knew anything was going on. They had to back down. It was an absolute public relations mess-up,” Murray said during the committee meeting. “I agree with the governor that we don’t need to study this for five years, but I think we need something a little bit more than two line items in the budget to plan this to be successful.”

Matthew Mailloux, New Hampshire’s state budget director, said conversations with students, employees and other stakeholders are ongoing.

“A lot of that runway has already happened,” he said. “We’ve already had these conversations with both systems to identify what that path forward looks like, and the next logical step really is to combine the governance structure.”

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