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Another View -- Ross Gittell and Paul Holloway: Our community colleges offer more than you may think they do

August 24. 2012 1:38AM

Another school year is starting, with the economy only slowly emerging from recession and student debt a growing concern for New Hampshire families. What should the higher education community be doing to best support our students, their families and the state's economy?

Postsecondary education has long supported individual and family well-being and has supplied the skilled work force critical for the success of businesses across the state. Recent research from Georgetown University shows that the economic health of the state will, in large part, depend upon increasing the percentage of the population with postsecondary education from the current level of just below one-half to about two-thirds. Yet other respected research shows an education-work force disconnect, with up to 40 percent of today's college graduates lacking the skills required in the 21st century workplace.

Our mission at the Community College System of New Hampshire is clear. Our programs must be economically relevant for New Hampshire students and the employer base that supports the state's economy. And our course delivery methods and underlying technology and services must make higher education affordable and broadly accessible. This requires focusing on courses that align with emerging work force needs; structuring our offerings to create clear career pathways for students; and enabling more seamless student progression from high school to college, among college partners, and from college to career. It also means using technology to deliver programs cost-effectively and to increase operational efficiency.

Enrollment at New Hampshire's community colleges has nearly doubled over the decade. We serve more than 27,000 students, almost all of whom (95 percent) are from New Hampshire. Many come for the one- or two-year career programs. Many come for an affordable first two years of a four-year degree. Our tuition alone is approximately half that of the University of New Hampshire, and our students can live at home, making the transfer pathway a significant cost-saving option for families. We have frozen tuition in three of the last six years, demonstrating a commitment to affordability and budgetary restraint.

The community colleges have also increased online course offerings and are now the second largest provider of distance learning in the state (after Southern New Hampshire University) with more than 700 online courses offered annually, a 48 percent increase over the last two years. This means that a resident of Bath, Ossipee or Hinsdale can take courses offered online through any New Hampshire community college - increasing the efficiency of course delivery and the opportunities available to students.

We have also increased our dual enrollment programs with New Hampshire high schools - the Running Start program and its online variant, eStart - enabling high school students to get a jump-start on college and reduce the eventual cost and time to earn a degree. Last year, there were 5,400 course registrations through Running Start - 26 percent growth over the last three years. The program is offered in 65 of New Hampshire's 80 public high schools and in adult education centers.

We are building strong connections and partnerships with educational institutions across the state, including credit transfer agreements with the University System of New Hampshire and private colleges. We are also increasing ties and partnerships with regional employers, focusing on work force development in industry clusters across the state, from the Seacoast and southern tier to the North Country. Our programs are supported by industry advisory committees to assist with curriculum development and connect students with prospective employers.

As New Hampshire's community colleges have evolved, we've explored questions about the type of education we must offer. Technical training? A foundation in the liberal arts for students seeking transfer? From our work with employers, we understand that a skilled work force requires both. Employees need technical skills, as well as skills in written and verbal communications, critical thinking, problem solving, applying mathematical principles. This is true of all professions - from automotive technicians to health care practitioners, machine tool operators, financial analysts, software developers, teachers and managers.

We are deeply committed to our students and to the mission of providing high quality, economically relevant education. We encourage prospective students of all ages, backgrounds and aspirations to access our courses and programs and take advantage of our connection to jobs and the economy.

Ross Gittell is chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire. Paul Holloway is chairman of the CCNSH Board of Trustees.

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