LEE — After more than 35 years with the University System of New Hampshire, the last four as chancellor, Ed MacKay retired Friday, with the organization that embraces the University of New Hampshire, Keene State College, Plymouth State University and Granite State College approaching a crossroad.
The value of a college degree is in question, in-state tuition and student debt are among the highest in the country and the number of high school graduates in the state, which peaked at 17,240 in 2008, is on a steady downward trend toward 14,000 by 2019. Many state lawmakers have, over the years, questioned the need for a chancellor when each institution in the system has its own president.
"I think you could make the case that this is a critical point for the state’s public policy decision-makers," he said. Controlling tuition, attracting more out-of-state students, increasing graduates in science and technology and enhancing ties to the business community will be key to the system’s future, he said in a wide-ranging interview at the USNH offices just off the Lee traffic circle on Route 4.
Although he served only four years as chancellor, MacKay had been a vice chancellor since 2000 and spent his career since the early 1970s as an administrator for the university system in once capacity or another, ranging from a dean of student affairs at Keene State to system budget director. In his final year on the job, he helped the Chancellor’s Office avoid extinction while implementing a 50-percent cut in state funding.
A bill to eliminate the office was approved in the House last spring, but died in the Senate, which apparently agreed that consolidating administrative functions at the office saves the university system money and helps its bond rating.
MacKay’s successor, expected to be named in April, would inherit a more stable situation under Gov. Maggie Hassan’s proposed budget, which would restore most of the funding cut by the Republican-led Legislature in 2011.
<strong>Working with Sununu</strong>
MacKay is no stranger to the struggle over funding. Early in his career, one of his first jobs was to brief incoming Gov. John H. Sununu.
"He was the dean of engineering at Tufts, so he really knew higher education and wanted to go through things in great detail," said MacKay. "I worked with him and his aides for six months to get them to understand the university system budget, and I got to learn a lot about the politics."
After making some cuts in his first budget, Sununu became a big supporter of the university system, MacKay said.
The state has never had the resources to be very generous with university funding, but until last year was at least consistent, MacKay said: "For 25 years, up until the current biennium, we did not have a year-over-year decline in state support. The state didn’t fund us at a high level, but it was a stable relationship."
That changed in 2011, when lawmakers cut the state appropriation to the university system from $100 million to $51 million. Before the cut, the appropriation had amounted to between 11 and 12 percent of the system’s total revenue; today, the appropriation accounts for less than 6 percent.
MacKay said the state appropriation was used almost entirely to control tuition and is viewed by university administrators as a subsidy for in-state students.
Tuition did go up as a result, with the overall price to attend schools increasing by 8 to 10 percent, depending on the institution. MacKay said the system also severed its relationship with New Hampshire Public Television, offered severance packages to encourage retirements and deferred some expenses.
Those cuts would remain in place under Hassan’s budget, even though much of the funding lost in 2011 would be restored over the next two years, MacKay said. The restored funds would be used to maintain a promised freeze on tuition and to increase financial aid, he said.
<strong>A very different state</strong>
MacKay said New Hampshire is a very different state today from when he first came to work for the university system, during the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Years of population growth and prosperity in the 1980s, 1990s and earlier part of the new millennium have run their course.
The state is 46th in the nation when it comes to the number of native-born residents with a college degree, MacKay said. It is ninth-highest overall, however, including residents who moved here from elsewhere, he said, pointing to the effect the influx of new residents had on the state over the years — a growth that dropped sharply in 2008.
"The challenge for the state is a decline in the number of high school graduates and stagnation in the overall population," he said. "So where are we going to find our students over the next decade?"
The university system has maintained its enrollment rates over the last three years despite a decline in the number of students from New Hampshire. "We did a better job of attracting out-of-state students," he said. That trend may not be sustainable, as the system saw a 13 percent decline in applications for admission last fall.
"Part of the solution has to be to improve college-attendance rates of high school graduates in the state," he said, by convincing them and their parents that there is still great value in a college degree as reflected in employment rates and earnings over a lifetime.
Working with employers and the community college system to better match degree choices with employment opportunities has to be part of that equation, he said, particularly when it comes to degrees in science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM disciplines.
Last year, the university system graduated 6,500 students, but fewer than 900 with STEM degrees. In the most critical areas of computer science or network engineering, the number was closer to 100.
Only 30 percent of the students who declare as STEM majors as undergraduates get to the finish line, he said. "We need to do a better job of encouraging those students and providing them the support and the instruction to help that 70 percent become convinced they can do it."
<strong>More attention to online</strong>
Online courses will invariably become more and more part of the system portfolio, he said, particularly at Granite State College, which now has 50 percent of its courses entirely online. UNH added 100 online courses in the past three years, he said.
"We have to move in that direction, and while we want to scale up as soon as possible, we need to support our students better," he said. "Of all the students who sign up nationally for massive open online courses, only 5 percent complete the course. We can’t afford to have those kind of attrition rates. In the University System of New Hampshire, well over 90 percent of students who start an online course complete that course. We have worked hard to provide the support structure to enable students to be successful."
Todd Leach, president of Granite State College, is serving as chancellor until a successor is named.
Although his final year was one of political and financial tension, MacKay hopes his lasting legacy will be in the transformation of the university’s information technology over the years, a capital improvement program he helped to implement and the greater independence the colleges and universities in the system now enjoy.
"People here provided an opportunity for me to take on more and more responsibilities over the years," he said, "and I embraced those opportunities."