The New Hampshire Democratic Party held a meeting at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) on Monday in room 233, right next to Grafton Lounge, in the Memorial Union Building entitled “Student and Local Community Leaders Highlight Sununu’s Failure on Student Debt Crisis.” The meeting included Democratic State Senator David Watters, currently serving his fourth consecutive term, as well as Democratic State Representatives Tamara Le and Liz McConnell.
“The best way to deal with student [debt] is not to have it in the first place and that’s what the budget is supposed to do,” Sen. Watters, the event’s initial speaker, told attendees. “The student debt crisis really robs our students of their future and their financial freedom and that steals, really, from the opportunities from their education have gained.”
Watters told the crowd doesn’t believe that Sununu is doing what he can to alleviate this problem.
“That’s why Governor Sununu’s budget is such a failure. It does nothing to lessen the burden on the next generation of Granite Staters. That hurts our students, it hurts their families, but it hurts the state as well,” he said.
Watters, while acknowledging that Sununu’s budget does include higher education funding, said that the governor’s efforts are not enough.
“He proposed some one-time increases in STEM and nursing programs which is nice, but it left almost all the rest of the students in the dust because they were going to see tuition increases because we didn’t receive additional money,” he said.
The state senator linked this issue to other statewide obstacles as “challenges” the Granite State must overcome to remain viable, including aging and a “dwindling workforce.”
“Our state’s population is getting older and we don’t have the young people needed to fill the jobs,” Sen. Watters stated.
He also described an exodus of students from the state as a direct result of Sununu’s actions.
“Governor Sununu is refusing to support higher education. New Hampshire is now the number one exporter of high school graduates in the country. Almost 60 percent of our high school graduates leave the state to pursue higher education,” Sen. Watters said as he quickly narrowed his focus onto UNH.
“Let’s look at the University of New Hampshire in particular. Highest tuition in the country. Highest. No wonder our students graduate with so much debt,” he said.
Sen. Watters expressed concern that the governor’s budget would only exacerbate this situation and, as he put it, “almost certainly lead to tuition increases.” He mentioned how this dismal reality wasn’t how the state formerly handled funding higher education.
“New Hampshire already contributes the least to public universities in the country. And I will add, and just note, that this Governor Sununu’s father, because he recognized the value of public education, gave the largest increases to the university system’s budget in the history of the state,” Sen. Watters said.
He also explained how Democrats in the state legislature are working to remedy the issue.
“You will see a Democratic budget emerge from the House and the Senate that addresses higher education needs, not just in the regular budget, but in the capitol budget as well…Sununu needs to come to the table. He needs to work with us. The door is open here,” Watters stressed. “Let’s make higher education affordable. Let’s relieve the debt and the debt burden dragging down the future of our kids and our state.”
State Rep. Tamara Le (D) followed Watters and a round of applause.
“I actually sit on the House Education Committee. The House Education Committee supports greater funding for our University System. Democrats on the House Finance Committee concur and as you heard from the senator, the senate concurs, we just need to get to our governor,” she said, adding that, “we need to let him know we are in crisis mode.”
Rep. Le said she was adamant that people need to change their attitude towards student debt.
“I don’t like being in fiftieth place. I’m not proud of that, nor should you, nor should anybody else in the state,” the representative said.
Le told a personal story about when her child was diagnosed with autism at age two, explaining how graduate students at the UNH provided her and her family with help; these same graduate students were unable to afford their tuition.
“Now that is a crisis when you have someone who is invested, has made this their career, is making a difference, and is finding a way to level the burden for parents and all constituents of UNH. To cut that off is like cutting your nose off to spite your face,” Rep Le said while describing the amount that the state of New Hampshire used to fund higher education. “If the state were to actually double the contribution, guess what place we’d be in. We’d still be in 50th place. That just tells you how miniscule the state contribution is for our students.”
The next speakers were University of New Hampshire students, with the first of the three being junior political science major Melinda Hamilton.
“In a world where higher education is the key to basically every opportunity and success it’s crucial that New Hampshire students, like me and my peers, are not further burden with increasing rates of student debt,” Hamilton said.
“Ignoring our young people and the student debt crisis is not an option for the governor of New Hampshire,” Joseph Ramirez, a political science major, a Non-Resident student senator and current candidate for student body president, stated following Hamilton. When the floor opened to questions, Ramirez stated an important number.
“What I can tell you is that the in-state tuition here is $6,000 more than the average cost in the United States,” he added.
The speakers from the state legislature stressed that the University System of New Hampshire is doing everything it can to assuage the financial burden on students and that the major factor in why tuition is disproportionately high to the rest of the country is a result of negligible funding from the state of New Hampshire. A problem exacerbated, according to the Democratic Party of New Hampshire, by Gov. Sununu. The state senator and state representatives went to Plymouth State University and Keene State College later in the day to hold similar meetings.
Staff Writer Rose Correll contributed to the reporting for this story.