Giovanni Guzman wants to be a doctor, but first she needs to pick the right college.
A soon-to-be senior at Las Cruces’ Mayfield High School, Guzman has a working short list that includes University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and a small Catholic school in Ohio.
UNM has the edge at the moment. Guzman said Albuquerque’s crime rate gives her pause, but the school’s BA/MD degree program appeals to her.
“They have more opportunities here,” Guzman said as she, her mom, aunt and cousins prepared to explore UNM as part of an organized campus family tour last week.
Case Newberry is considering UNM, too. The Class of 2018 teen from Dallas also visited the Albuquerque campus last week. Heading into the tour, he ranked UNM lower than many of his home-state options, including University of Texas and Baylor. But the aspiring dentist’s afternoon stroll through UNM’s Zimmerman Library and past the campus duck pond might have helped bump it up.
“It’s a lot prettier than I thought it would be because of all of the trees,” he said, adding that he liked how “accommodating” UNM seemed to be for its students.
UNM needs about 3,300 Giovannis and Cases to commit every year to build its typical freshman class.
But the state’s largest university actually needs a total 9,000-student infusion – from freshmen through graduate level – annually to replace those who graduated or dropped out.
It doesn’t come easily.
The number of full-time equivalent students has dipped 3 percent at UNM since its late-recession peak, while total head count slipped 7 percent.
“This operation is so complicated; it’s not one population, one answer (to maintaining enrollment),” said UNM interim President Chaouki Abdallah. “There are so many different things that have to come together in order to get (students) in, in order to keep them in.”
Total enrollment at New Mexico’s public postsecondary institutions has fallen each of the past six years, dropping nearly 14 percent in that span, according to state Higher Education Department data. The number of full-time equivalent students – considered by enrollment officials as the more important measure – has decreased for five straight years.
In this, at least, New Mexico is not alone.
Postsecondary enrollment surged nationally during the recession as people rushed campuses with the hopes of improving their job prospects. The gains were not sustained; U.S. undergraduate enrollment slid 6 percent between 2010 and 2015, federal data show.
But the line might soon start moving upward again. The National Center for Education Statistics’ latest forecast predicts 14 percent enrollment growth from 2015 to 2026.
Just how New Mexico will compare remains to be seen.
The plummeting value of the state’s Legislative Lottery Scholarship will impact thousands of New Mexicans who attend in-state institutions. The scholarship will cover just 60 percent of tuition in 2017-18, down from 90 percent last year. Approximately 26,000 students benefit from the program annually, including about one-third of undergraduate students at UNM and NMSU.
UNM officials anticipate enrollment declining 2 to 2.5 percent this year, with the lottery accounting for about half the loss.
But school leaders point to something else as their chief concern: a constricting student pipeline.
“Our demographics are not good in New Mexico,” said Garrey Carruthers, NMSU chancellor and former state governor.
New Mexico has experienced population stagnation unlike any time in its history, growing just 1.1 percent between 2010 and 2016, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. About 38,000 more people left the state than moved here.
Despite a rising graduation rate, the state’s public high schools produced nearly 4 percent fewer graduates in 2016 than in 2008, according to Public Education Department data. And having one of the nation’s lowest graduation rates of 71 percent doesn’t help grow the pipeline.
Those are serious problems since the universities generally get most students from within a 200-mile radius, according to Terry Babbitt, UNM’s associate vice president in charge of enrollment.
“Demographics are the No. 1 driver of our enrollment. … And our demographics are stuck in the water,” he said.
Fewer students means less tuition money at a time tuition has become an increasingly important revenue source.
New Mexico’s budget crisis has meant fewer dollars for higher education, with appropriations to colleges and universities falling by 8 percent in the past two years.
At UNM, tuition now funds about 43 percent of the academic enterprise, while the state appropriation covers 57 percent. A decade ago, tuition covered 31 percent compared with 69 percent from the state.
With declining funding and students, many New Mexico institutions have used tuition hikes to cover the shortfalls, which are made worse by the rising cost of doing business.
“Our expenses keep going up,” Abdallah said, “so enrollment, or something, has to keep going up.”
UNM’s base tuition for in-state students has increased by $460 since the school’s 2012-13 population peak, according to university figures. Tuition and fees for a resident full-time student will cost an estimated $7,146 this year.
If schools cannot find revenue to match the rising expenses, Abdallah said they start to cut. It’s an often painful and emotional process, he added, citing the uproar that accompanied UNM’s recent decision to cut its ski team. (Private contributions have since prompted the school to keep the team around for at least one more year.)
New Mexico Higher Education Department Secretary Barbara Damron has funneled much of her energy into a series of reforms intended to improve student outcomes, like common course numbering across all institutions to help aid the transfer process. And she said those measures could ultimately help flatten out what has been a downward-moving enrollment line.
“We have to be attractive enough to get them in the door,” she said.
Carruthers said he considers boosting enrollment his chief priority.
“For us to do our business, we need students, so it will always be No. 1,” he said, expressing optimism about this fall. He said early signs – including attendance at new student orientations – indicate the upcoming freshman class will be larger than 2016’s. And that one was bigger than in 2015.
NMSU has significantly bolstered its marketing budget and now dedicates about $1.5 million annually, spreading its message around New Mexico but also in Arizona, Texas and Southern California.
UNM last year initiated a $1 million advertising blitz to establish the school’s brand and aid enrollment. UNM also spends about $250,000 annually on special web-based recruiting technology.
NMSU has turned increasing attention to the Mexico market. Its new “Descubre” program specifically will target students south of the border by allowing Mexicans to attend at just 1½ times in-state tuition rates. The first participants will arrive this fall, and Carruthers said he sees NMSU as a natural fit for Mexican students.
At UNM, Babbitt said nontraditional adult students are the only real growth opportunity.
New Mexico State and UNM have both increased their online courses. NMSU now offers about 30 programs on a distance basis. UNM has several of its own and this fall will launch an internet-based degree in psychology, its most popular major. Offered in eight-week formats, the program targets part-time adult students.
“We’re not trying to replace face-to-face,” Abdallah said. “We’re trying to (create) a safety net of ‘x’ thousands of credit hours, so we can grow.”
UNM has about 2,000 online-only students already.
The school is also working to attract more veterans plus people who started college but never finished.
About 15 percent of working-age New Mexicans (25-64) have some college but never earned a degree or certificate, according to the Lumina Foundation. That equates to about 157,000 people, according to U.S. Census population estimates.
At Santa Fe Community College, students age 18-24 represent the largest demographic group, but the 55-plus set is a very close second. And President Randy Grissom noted that older students’ interests aren’t dramatically different than their younger counterparts.
“They’re coming back for lifelong learning, but (also) for careering,” he said.
SFCC’s headcount has slipped since its peak about seven years ago but has seemingly reset at a level higher than the recession. Budget tightening has forced the school to eliminate some programs, but SFCC also has added others intended to address specific community employment needs.
That includes a 2-year-old automotive program that helped fill the void for such education in Northern New Mexico. The program boasts 80 students, students who might not otherwise have been attracted to SFCC, Grissom said.
It also has responded to growing demand for information technology know-how, allowing even students who don’t pursue degrees to emerge with the certifications that employers value. In response to the smashing success of Santa Fe-based arts collective Meow Wolf, the school is now working to offer business-related courses to aid artists.
“We’ve taken a lot of pride in being able to make changes to meet the needs of the future,” Grissom said.
Central New Mexico Community College also is seeking new ways to capture students, like its information technology apprenticeship program and noncredit coding boot camps. The latter do not count toward enrollment numbers but they do generate some revenue.
CNM sustained a 15 percent drop in students between 2011 and 2016, but President Kathie Winograd said in a written statement that enrollment challenges have given CNM “the opportunity to adapt our education and business models while remaining steadfast to CNM’s mission: creating the skilled workforce of the future.”
Retention is key
School leaders say that keeping students on campus is as important as wooing new ones. They look for avenues to improve retention, whether it’s boosting the adviser ranks or doing advanced data analysis to identify which students might be struggling.
UNM also allocates about $1 million in grants annually to students whose only barrier to staying in school might be an outstanding campus balance of a few hundred dollars, Babbitt said.
Freshman retention has been climbing at both UNM and NMSU.
“Once we get the students into the university,” Abdallah said, “it’s so much more efficient to keep them.”