By John Toole
---- — New Hampshire educators say the 5 percent cut in tuition announced last week by the state Community College System could extend and expand a trend of more students choosing to start college in two-year programs.
“We’re seeing a major increase,” Pelham High School dean of guidance Kathryn Sheridan said. “Last year, 20 percent of our graduates, and this year 24 percent, chose a two-year college.”
In seven years, the percentage of Pelham students selecting community college is up from the mid-teens.
“It was closer to 15 percent,” Sheridan said. “We’ve seen it incrementally go up.”
Londonderry High guidance counselor Bill Mitchell said the percentage of students choosing community colleges has increased from the low 20s to 25 percent.
“Our numbers have gone up the past couple of years,” he said. “There’s definitely a trend.”
Salem High guidance director Heidi Greenlaw said the percentage of graduates going to a two-year program is up from 18 percent in 2011 to about 25 percent the last two years.
“We’ve seen an increase in students attending a two-year college,” Greenlaw said.
The numbers are up at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, too, from 28 percent to 34 percent over the past three years.
“A number of students are looking long and hard at the community college option for financial or other reasons,” principal Brian Stack said.
Cost matters to students and their parents.
“I really do believe a lot of it has to do with the economy,” Sheridan said.
It mattered to Pelham senior Tom Gleason, bound for Lakes Region Community College to study firefighting science.
“Price is definitely a big factor,” Gleason said.
He had just heard about the tuition reduction, which will cut the per credit cost from $210 to $200.
An in-state student carrying a full 12 credits per semester will pay about $4,800, a savings of $240.
“I’m excited about it,” Gleason said. “That’s going to limit some of my costs.”
But Gleason stressed the academic program also influenced his decision.
“They have the best program in New England for firefighting and that is a factor,” he said.
His classmate, Nick Lachapelle, also considered Lakes Region, before settling on Keene State College.
He said he looked at 10 colleges and realized very quickly cost was a big consideration.
Lachapelle will study business management and fine arts at Keene. He decided to enroll there because of the fine arts program, but admits the tuition at Lakes Region was attractive.
“The cost would have been great to have at Lakes Region,” Lachapelle said.
He approved of the state’s decision to cut tuition at the community colleges.
“That’s an awesome move, 5 percent,” Lachapelle said.
Gov. Maggie Hassan said she applauded the Community College System for the tuition reduction.
“This important step forward for our workforce builds on the progress we made in last year’s bipartisan budget to restore investments in higher education in exchange for a tuition freeze,” Hassan said.
Chancellor Ross Gittell said it would help students, whether they are training for a career or taking a first step toward a four-year college.
“Reducing tuition and bending the cost curve in higher education helps students and their families fit a college education in their budgets,” Gittell said.
Many community college students do now use community college as a step to a four-year degree.
“Roughly half of our students report that they intend to transfer to a four-year college or university,” Community College System spokeswoman Shannon Reid said. “We can say that roughly a third of our students or graduates each year transfer to one of the institutions within the University System of New Hampshire.”
While the community colleges don’t track transfers to colleges outside the University System, they do know a signficant number of students transfer to other four-year programs, she said.
Rockingham County accounts for 19 percent of community college enrollment in New Hampshire. That’s second to the 33 percent from Hillsborough County. Merrimack County accounts for 15 percent.
Londonderry High’s Mitchell remembers how families avoided community college 30 years ago.
“Parents years ago would say, ‘My kid’s not going to go to community college,’ ” Mitchell said. “Now it’s not taboo. It’s a readily accessible and viable option.”
Community colleges have done a good job promoting their programs and also upgrading campuses, he said.
Stack said programs like Project Running Start, which lets high school students earn college credits through the community colleges, are helping.
“Kids are going to see that natural connection,” he said.
Mitchell sees the tuition decision as a plus with higher education costs generally on an upward spiral.
“This really gives kids an opportunity to save some money and attend school and also pursue a career in multiple directions,” Mitchell said.
Greenlaw also said it helps.
“I think anytime there is a decrease in secondary education costs that is a good thing for graduating seniors,” she said.
The tuition cut will only boost the trend, Mitchell expects.
“I think things are going to continue in this direction the next few years,” Mitchell said.
So does Greenlaw.
“Just talking with students, more and more of them are thinking this is a good way to get a great education at a lower cost,” she said.