Another state budget curiosity

Buried in the guts of House Bill 2, the budget “trailer” bill that implements the substantive changes that have to be made in order to meet the provisions of the spending plan (or cutting plan) are provisions that eliminate the Postsecondary Education Commission, a specialized entity that serves a unique purpose in New Hampshire.In 1973, the commission replaced something known as the “coordinating board,” which coordinated activities among the institutions of higher learning in New Hampshire. The commission is the entity that has the power to authorize college degrees and programs. Prior to the commission’s existence, a new degree at any New Hampshire institution had to be approved by the Legislature itself. Coupled with the fact that the Legislature met only every other year in those days, it was a matter of intricate timing to get a new college degree prepared, get a sponsor, file the bill, have the hearing and obtain legislative approval in the appropriate schedule.HB 2 implements a proposal made by Gov. John Lynch in his budget address, eliminating the commission and transferring its statutory powers to the state Department of Education. In doing so, little guidance is found in the proposal as to how the Department of Education is going to serve the purpose – certainly no new personnel are provided it to do so, and it is doubtful that the department requested this additional work.The commission’s budget of approximately $500,000 should be viewed in light of the number of regulated educational entities with which it deals.There are 136 career schools, colleges and universities with over 114,000 students. The commission administers $3.8 million in financial support for over 8,500 needy students who want a postsecondary education. (The budget also proposes elimination of state scholarship programs. New Hampshire has a long-standing tradition of commitment to students with financial need and enactment of the proposal indeed would be startling.)Developments in technology, for-profit and American education delivered abroad provide the opportunity for dishonorable people to provide sloppy, fraudulent or educationally suspect courses and programs. At this time, that requires a sophisticated understanding of higher education and an entity that has the capacity for establishing, monitoring and closing colleges and universities that do not pass muster or comply with the law. Not only do states have this responsibility, the federal Department of Education is looking carefully at for-profit educational providers since the value of their offerings and their graduation rates have been a cause for alarm.A real dilemmaThe Postsecondary Education Commission is made up of representatives from various parts of higher education. In addition to the commissioner of education, the chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire and the chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire, other members are the president of a public two-year college or university, a representative from a college or university not a member of the College and University Council, a representative of a four-year public college or university, a representative of the New Hampshire Council for Professional Education, three presidents of four-year public colleges or universities, six representatives from private college or universities, four lay members and three student representatives.This shows the ability of the commission to bring the concerns and considerations of all aspects of higher education to the review of programs and degrees. Eliminating it and replacing it with the state Board of Education, already overburdened, presents a real dilemma for those seeking quality and innovation in higher education and close monitoring of the offerings students are asked to pay for in increasingly large amounts.As the Senate considers the budget, it should be careful to understand what the entities being affected by various budget provisions really do.The mere assertion that someone else could perform the function, without direction or funding, sounds more like an excuse for a budget cut than a rationale.Alarmed by the proposal, New Hampshire’s college and university presidents are examining ways to protect the integrity of New Hampshire higher education. With all the other challenges facing their institutions and students, this budget proposal presents them with additional complexity.Brad Cook is a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.