CONCORD, N.H. – Higher education in northern New England is less affordable than just about anywhere else in the country, according to a report released Thursday.
But the state-by-state evaluation of opportunities for education beyond high school gives the region good marks for college completion and preparation.
The report, Measuring Up 2000, was compiled by The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education of San Jose, Calif.
The group evaluated states on five criteria: how well they prepare children for college, the percentage of residents enrolled in college programs, affordability, graduation rates, and benefits states derive from the schooling.
When it comes to keeping higher education affordable, Maine and New Hampshire earned failing marks, two of only three states to do so, according to the report. The other was Rhode Island.
Even after financial aid, tuition at a community college in New Hampshire consumes 27 percent of a family’s income. That jumps to 30 percent at a public four-year college or university, and 61 percent at private institutions.
“It’s no secret that we have extraordinarily high tuition and its one of our very highest priorities to address,” said Stephen Reno, chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire.
Reno said university system trustees have an uderstanding with lawmakers that they will keep tuition increases reasonable so long as the Legislature increases the system’s funding.
But it may be some time before the state can make significant improvements. A battle over how to pay for public elementary and high schools has left New Hampshire with an estimated $200 million budget shortfall.
The numbers are worse in Maine, where community colleges consume 33 percent of a family’s income, public colleges 30 percent and private schools 86 percent.
The University of Maine System last May held increases at its seven campuses to an average 3 percent, in line with its pledge to do so if the Legislature raised its appropriation for the system by slightly more than 3 percent.
Vermont did marginally better with 26 percent of income needed for community colleges, 39 percent for public colleges and 73 percent for private schools. Its score, a D-minus, was helped by its financial aid programs for low-income students.
Funding for education at all levels has been a political issue for several years in Vermont. Gov. Howard Dean has used budget surpluses to boost spending on higher education more than on most other areas of state government.
Dean said that during the past 10 years state support has gone up a cumulative 21 percent.
“I agree that we need to do a better job of funding the state colleges and we have a plan in place to do that,” he said.
Though the report does not rank states, it said the best averaged 17 percent of family income for community colleges, 19 percent for public colleges and universities and 30 percent for private institutions.
The region did do well preparing children for college, in part because of the high percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds who earn high school or General Education Development diplomas.
New Hampshire, where 89 percent of young adults have some sort of diploma, earned a B. Maine, with 92 percent, had a B-plus, and Vermont, with 93 percent, got B-minus.
Vermont’s score is based in part on the low number of pupils enrolled in upper-level math and science courses. And New Hampshire lost marks because low proportions of pupils do well on Advanced Placement tests.
Participation in higher education earned meiocre marks for the region. Vermont got a C-minus, while Maine and New Hampshire got C-pluses.
Only a moderate number of young adults in Vermont enroll in college before age 24, and only 3 percent of 25- to 44-year-olds get additional schooling, the report said. The numbers were slightly higher in Maine and New Hampshire.
All three states scored well when it came to getting students to finish their schooling, with New Hampshire and Vermont earning A’s, and Maine getting a B-plus.
In New Hampshire, 79 percent of freshmen at four-year colleges return for their sophomore year, and 65 percent complete bachelor’s degrees within five years. Maine and Vermont had similar numbers.
“It indicates that if we can get them in the door, we can see them through to completion,” Reno said. “The question is opening that door.”
In terms of benefits to the state, Maine fared the worst in northern New England, earning only a C. The report attributed that mostly to the small proportion of residents with college degrees, saying it economically impairs the state.
Only 23 percent of Maine residents aged 25 to 65 have higher educations, compared with 34 percent in states that did best in the evaluation. New Hampshire and Vermont each had 30 percent, earning them B-minuses.
“I think the study is a useful tool,” said James Breece, interim vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of Maine System. “It is not a measure of performance of higher education, but more of the social and economic environment in which we operate,”
Maine education officials hope to secure more financial aid for students as part of a new University of Maine strategic plan, Breece said.
“Financial aid is becoming more available, but we could do more,” he said.
Mike McCarthy of States News Service contributed to this story.