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Higher education financing being re-evaluated

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

As New Mexico’s public colleges and universities strain under a budget crunch wrought by fewer state dollars and lower enrollment, legislative analysts want to learn how – or if – the state’s higher education network can operate smarter, especially when neither revenue source is expected to rapidly rebound.

The Legislative Finance Committee has embarked on one of its most comprehensive higher education finance evaluations in years, one that will consider the institutions’ “cost drivers,” ways to limit duplication and run more efficiently. It also will study how the schools have addressed “recent budget reductions and changes in revenue along with potential impact on affordability,” according to an explanation LFC Director David Abbey wrote to Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron earlier this year.

Research began around January, and staff should release the report this fall. The study covers 24 institutions, including research and comprehensive universities, their branches and independent community colleges.

LFC Deputy Director Charles Sallee said the financial challenges are “coming to a head” for many New Mexico universities and colleges, and nearly all of the state’s schools are raising tuition for the 2017-18 school year.

“We’re looking at how they can become more efficient and not need to pass on those price increases to students,” Sallee said, adding that the study will factor a range of expenses, from salaries to maintenance.

Sallee said LFC’s work dovetails well with the strategic planning now underway through the state’s Higher Education Department. HED last August began a statewide strategic planning process that involves HED and New Mexico colleges and universities, plus businesspeople, representatives from K-12 education, and other affected constituencies. Damron said they want to determine “the best system” for higher education New Mexico and how to get more students into – and graduating from – the state’s schools.

Despite recent declines, higher education remains among New Mexico’s largest expenditures. It gets about 13 percent of general fund appropriations. Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, who is chair of the committee, said the time is right for a thorough study of higher education finances because of state budget challenges and recent changes to the higher education funding formula.

The state now uses performance measures, such as degrees awarded annually, to determine part of each school’s allocation, and Lundstrom said this study will help lawmakers better understand how it is working.

In addition, Lundstrom – like many others – questions the viability of a higher education network that includes so many points of access.

She noted that Silver City-based Western New Mexico University has a presence in her Gallup district, approximately a half-mile from the University of New Mexico’s Gallup branch. She said there are many similar examples around the state.

“It’s a lot of money (going to higher education). And we want to make sure it’s going to the best, most efficient system,” she said.