by Sherry Robinson, Carlsbad Current Argus
October 21, 2016

New Mexico’s small population stretches over a big state, so we have taken higher education to the students, with 32 colleges and universities. Nearly every sizable community has a branch or an independent institution.

For our students, who tend to be older and need to hold a job while they take classes, this is a good thing.

But one of the bigger arguments in the recent legislative special session was how much to cut higher education. The institutions skated with relatively small cuts, but probably not for long. We’re not out of the hole, and come January, lawmakers will put everything back on the table.

Recently, Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron announced that the state’s system is unsustainable. Each institution has its own board, and they’re more dependent on state funding than experts say is healthy. New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs is lowest at 20 percent, while Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari is highest at 61 percent. The three biggest institutions get 35 to 40 percent of their funding from the state.

As state revenues have tanked, so have enrollments, which had risen during the early part of the recession. Also, our population is shrinking as people leave the state. Graduation rates are poor (35 percent, compared with 40 percent nationally).

Traditionally, our institutions made tuition low, and we have seen relatively high participation. But as the state reduces support, the schools will be forced to cut budgets and/or shift more of the burden to students.

The Higher Education Department is working on a plan that will mean collaboration and consolidation.

Funding fewer schools seems like an obvious solution, but it will be a tough sell. These aren’t just schools. For communities, they’re a source of jobs, revenue, pride, entertainment and worker training for new and existing employers. Legislators can be expected to go to the mat in their defense.

In 2011, New Mexico was 11th in expenditures per full-time student, spending 18 percent more than the national average, according to New Mexico Voices for Children. As the recession deepened, the state reduced spending by 20 percent, far more than other states. Schools raised tuition and federal contributions increased. Tuition here is still relatively low; even then it’s out of reach for many New Mexicans, the advocacy group concluded.

In 2014, Voices pointed out that New Mexico had slashed higher education funding per student by $4,588, more than all states but two, and tuition had climbed about 25 percent. And yet median household income has taken baby steps. Students have resorted to loans, and we all know what’s happened. The stereotype is the graduate waiting tables and trying to pay off a boatload of student debt. Voices would prefer to see a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.

In a recent survey, respondents indicated they would support such a combination, but before then, we need some discussion about what we’re paying for.

As a single mom, I paid my own freight for the last two years of college, so I have some experience. Tuition wasn’t my big issue. I had trouble finding classes that fit around my work schedule, a common problem. On-campus daycare ALWAYS had a waiting list. It’s discouraging that our institutions have been so slow to get serious about evening courses and other needs of nontraditional students.

Higher education has some explaining to do. Does our 35 percent graduation rate mean that we have a lot of people in college who don’t belong there or just people who need more time to graduate? (I was one of the latter.) And why should higher education be saddled with the cost of remedial courses needed by half the students?

Damron will have to tread carefully on political toes, but if educational administrators are smart, they’ll get ahead of the curve.

Copyright 2016, Carlsbad Current Argus