Labor Day and Some Crumbs from the NEJHE Beat

Fruits of our labor. With terms like task creeping back into the language (as both a verb and a noun), the true origins of Labor Day may be as remote to today’s students as Lupercalia. The day, of course, is meant not simply to mark the end of summer by gorging on hotdogs, but to honor workers … including faculty and staff in and out of higher education and, by extension, the millions of undergraduates chasing that higher ed earnings premium they’ve been promised. Are they just so much human capital? The School of the Arts in North Carolina last year began holding all classes on Labor Day, attributing the decision to federal and system guidelines that mandate a specific number of classroom hours each semester. Same with a handful of other universities, including Notre Dame and Radford.
Speaking of endangered species? Less than two years ago, the University of Southern Maine (USM) was a frequent character in NEBHE’s tracking of vulnerable New England higher ed institutions. Eventually, USM cut 50 faculty positions, jettisoned whole academic programs and hired new leadership. Now, USM is proclaiming a victory of sorts, with applications for this academic year up 14% over the previous year and enrolled students up 3%, including a 23% increase in higher-paying out-of-state students. President Glenn Cummings recently announced an injection of funds for nursing scholarships and a new exchange program with a university in Iceland.

Another new agreement allows Southern Maine Community College students who pass a Connected Pathways requirements to enroll at USM without going through the normal admissions process. To be sure, not all the cases we watched closely through NEBHE’s Higher Education Innovation Challenge project have rebounded so well. Vermont’s Burlington College closed its doors after failing to attract students and drowning in debt.

State support and tuition. Data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities show that since the Great Recession, state spending on higher education in the U.S. has dropped by 17%, while tuition has risen by 33%. The New York Times ran a major piece comparing how states have responded to this new calculus by seeking out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition.

The Times findings on inflows and outflows of students generally match those of NEBHE’s Regional Student Program (RSP), which offers students a discount on out-of-state tuition. But interestingly, the findings diverge in two cases. The Times reported a net balance of residents leaving Massachusetts for other states, while the RSP data show more students going into Massachusetts. This may be attributed to the number of Bay State colleges near state borders and the significant number of programs available through the RSP. For New Hampshire, the Times reported a net balance of students going into the Granite State, while the RSP data showed a net balance of students leaving. This may be attributed to the number of programs available to New Hampshire residents out of state with a discount through the RSP.

Meanwhile, the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system allowed Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield to offer in-state rates to Massachusetts residents, and Western Connecticut State University to offer in-state rates to residents of seven New York counties.

Spending on education.  A chart in Governing magazine using U.S. Census Bureau data shows all six New England states among the top 15 nationally in public elementary-secondary school spending per pupil in FY 2014. Run those numbers for higher ed and New England will be mostly at the other end of the spectrum, with Vermont and New Hampshire famously trading 49th and 50th places and all but Connecticut below the U.S. average.

Golden anniversary. One strategy to address the challenges buffeting higher ed is for institutions to work together. NEBHE has been pleased to post links to New England consortia at www.nebhe.org. And one of the key players is the NH College and University Council (NHCUC), which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. The nonprofit founded in 1966 is a rare higher ed consortium insofar as it represents both public and private institutions. Among other things, NHCUC is a key supporter of the New Hampshire Forum of the Future, which holds events that look at emerging issues confronting industries, and of New Hampshire Scholars, which encourages students to take more rigorous courses in high school.

More comic relief. The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., is collaborating with the local VA Medical Center, where more than 70,000 military veterans from Vermont and New Hampshire go for healthcare. Students and faculty at the college are working with veterans to tell their stories via comic books.

The back-to-college marketing rush is on. I recently received a pitch from a global provider of health and wellness products, headlined: “How Essential Oils Ease the Stress and Strain of College Life.” The products it was plugging as “main items students pack with them to hit the books and the mixers once again” included peppermint, eucalyptus and lemon oils to “invigorate the senses, helping bring focus” and a protective blend “for dealing with especially unhygienic roommates.”

John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education.

Painting of “The View from Andrew’s Room Series IXX #2” by Montserrat College professor Timothy Harney.

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