As students at Keene State College inched toward the end of their first week of classes Thursday, local education leaders met to confer about the state of higher education in New Hampshire.

U.S. Rep. Ann M. Kuster, D-N.H., visited the college Thursday to lead a panel discussion on college affordability.

In her opening remarks, Kuster expressed disappointment in President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts to higher education programs.

She noted that the budget cuts would significantly reduce or eliminate several federal financial aid programs, including the Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant program, the federal work study program, the Gear Up program, and the TRIO program, which provides advising on college affordability to underserved high school students.

“What I’m here to talk about is how we can improve access and affordability rather than cut critical federal programs, and this is, you may have been reading in the press, a critical moment, because we go back to Congress next week on Tuesday,” she said.

During Congress’ new term, Kuster said one of her focuses will be pushing for refinancing options for students with high student-loan interest rates.

Kuster was joined by local panelists from Keene State College and Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, as well as representatives from Campus Compact for New Hampshire, the N.H. Higher Education Assistance Foundation and state Sen. Jay V. Kahn, D-Keene. Bailey St. Laurent, a Keene State College senior, and Luke Parkhurst, a Franklin Pierce University student, added student perspectives to the panel.

Many of the panelists spoke about the benefits of a college education and the impact cutting federal aid programs would have on students. Melinda Treadwell, Keene State’s interim president, emphasized the importance of the public loan forgiveness program.

“Those who serve the public good are those most benefited by the public loan forgiveness program,” said Treadwell. “To lose that as a way that we help encourage students to go forth and do public service work is a very significant loss.”

Both students on the panel expressed their gratitude for federal financial aid.

“I was given the opportunity to be educated at a great facility with great professors and a great community because of government aid. Without government aid, I never would have had this opportunity,” said Parkhurst, a senior studying business management and electrical engineering for magnetic studies at Franklin Pierce.

After about an hour of remarks by the panelists, Kuster opened the floor of the Mountain View Room of Keene State’s Young Student Center to comments from members of the public.

One man, who identified himself as a member of the Cheshire Adults Lifelong Learning program at Keene State, questioned how to promote federal financial aid programs to representatives and constituents across the aisle.

Another audience member, Daniel Henderson, who is the college’s director of corporate partnerships and strategic initiatives, suggested connecting with the business community as a possible solution to counter cuts to higher education aid programs.

“If (people) can’t afford to come here and get an education, there’s a direct impact on economic growth and the ability to keep these important taxpayers in our region. We are part of the broader ecosystem here, and I think that’s an important dimension to focus on exactly for that audience,” he said.

A common thread throughout discussion was a need for action. As the panelists’ remarks came to a close, Kenneth Ferreira, Franklin Pierce University’s associate vice president of student financial services, left listeners with a passionate statement to Kuster.

“Whatever leadership that you and your colleagues can provide as this budget makes its way through the House and eventually on to the Senate, on behalf of our students, they need that voice,” Ferreira said.

“They need to hear from you that this isn’t just about financial aid. This is about the future of our country and the future of our economy.”

Meg McIntyre can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or mmcintyre@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MMcIntyreKS.