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Chronicle of Higher Education wrong on NH lawmaker degrees

New Hampshire Sunday News

June 25. 2011 11:21PM

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently put New Hampshire at the very bottom of its list of State Houses when it comes to the percentage of members with college degrees.

The journal reported that 53 percent of lawmakers here have a bachelor's degree or higher, which would put the state solidly at the bottom of its list. California was at the top with nearly 90 percent of lawmakers who have college degrees, with Virginia, Nebraska, New York and Texas filling out the top five.

There's just one problem with the New Hampshire data: It's wrong.

New Hampshire came out at the bottom of the Chronicle of Higher Education report in large part because researchers could only find information about three-quarters of the 400 members of the House here.

The New Hampshire Sunday News reviewed the self-reported biographical data for all 424 state lawmakers in 'The Handbook of New Hampshire Elected Officials' for 2011 and 2012. According to our review, of the 405 legislators who reported their educational attainment, two-thirds have at least a bachelor's degree.

Thirty-four percent report having bachelor's degrees and 32 percent have advanced degrees, such as law degrees, MBAs and Ph.D.s

If you add legislators who report some college study, such as an associate's degree, the figure reaches 85 percent.

All 24 state senators went to college; 12 have B.A. degrees, 10 have advanced degrees.

The Sunday News review would take New Hampshire out of the bottom five for percentage of state legislative bodies with college degrees - but it's still in the bottom 10.

Alex Richards, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, acknowledged there was a data gap for New Hampshire and said as a result its position at the bottom of the list should be 'taken with a grain of salt.'

He pointed out the Chronicle's report both online and in print notes that New Hampshire's information was lacking. 'Because of its unusually large, part-time Legislature, the educational attainments of an inordinate number of lawmakers are unknown,' it states.

Richards said the Chronicle's study was based first on data from Project VoteSmart, which provided information on about 200 of the 400 House members here. Researchers then tracked down information on an additional 100 or so members from the state website, news stories, campaign materials and social media, he said, but 'for about a quarter, there's just nothing.'

Indeed, there's far more personal information in the so-called 'blue book' (Handbook of New Hampshire Elected Officials) than you'll find on the Legislature's website.

Only 18 state reps did not report their educational data, including Neal Kurk, R-Weare, a noted privacy advocate.

In reviewing the educational attainment data, the Sunday News calculated the numbers both by subtracting those 18 as well as the one vacant seat from the 424-member Legislature for a total sample size of 405; as well as based on the entire 424-member body minus the vacancy, which is how the Chronicle of Higher Education figured its data.

According to the Handbook, 58 lawmakers report no college at all; 80 report some college study; 139 have bachelor's degrees and 128 have advanced degrees.

If you use 423 as the base for calculations, that amounts to nearly 14 percent who have no college; 19 percent with some college; 33 percent with bachelor's degrees and 30 percent with advanced degrees.

If you subtract the missing 19 lawmakers from 424 for a base of 405, that makes 14 percent who have no college, 20 percent with some college, 34 percent with bachelor's degrees and 32 percent with advanced degrees.

So why does the educational attainment of our lawmakers matter?

Steve Norton, executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, said Colonial leaders wanted the state Legislature to be broadly representative.

The idea, he said, 'Was to make sure ... that the system did not fall into the hands of a small group of the elite, and many of the components of our government structure, which some say are archaic, are a reflection of our distaste for the monarchy and power consolidated in a very small number of individuals.'

To truly assess the effectiveness of a governing body, Norton suggested looking at a range of factors. 'Education is one indicator of a legislative body's ability to make good decisions, but there are others, and those include longevity and experience and the degree to which people are rooted in their communities. And certainly on those other indicators, New Hampshire legislators bear up extraordinarily well.'

The Chronicle report even suggests there could be advantages to having a more mixed group of lawmakers. 'Maybe it's good to have some like Kyle Jones, a 19-year-old New Hampshire lawmaker who manages the night shift at a Burger King,' it stated.

Jones, a Republican from Rochester who turns 20 next month, ran for office last fall alongside his mother, Laura Jones. Both were elected; he sits on the House Transportation Committee. His mother, who has a B.A. degree from California State University, according to the 'blue book,' is on the Education Committee.

Jones, who was home-schooled, said having more diversity in the Legislature provides a broader perspective on issues. 'I definitely view things a lot differently than someone who is much older than me, because what we do now that affects what's going to happen 30 or 40 years from now is going to be affecting my future as well,' he said. 'Someone older might not see it like that.'

Jones said that diversity 'really helps us in our state to do better because we have people from all different walks of life, not just one set group of people who make the decisions for the state.'

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