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Editorial: NM has so many colleges, so little cash

Too many colleges. Not enough money. Not enough students. Not sustainable.

To a pessimist, this is a good, if Hemingway-esque, description of New Mexico’s system of higher education. To an optimist, it’s a set of facts that could finally trigger a serious policy discussion about the future of the state’s colleges and universities.

As a foundation for that discussion, it should be a given that a vibrant system of higher education that turns out quality graduates ready to participate in the economy and in life is absolutely vital to the state’s future. The question is how to best allocate scarce resources to accomplish that.

New Mexico has 31 institutions of higher education with many governing boards. The state’s seven four-year schools are enshrined in the state Constitution. And every one of those schools, along with the two dozen other institutions of higher education, serves a need and is critical to local economies.

But a story in last Sunday’s Journal by reporter Jessica Dyer makes it clear we shouldn’t – and can’t – just keep doing what we are doing and hoping for the best.

Granted, the system has become much more efficient through the efforts of university presidents and Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron. This past legislative session legislators removed many of the obstacles of transferring credits from one state school to another. And students are graduating faster. Central New Mexico Community College has made tremendous strides in increasing the number of two-year degrees and certificates awarded, and the University of New Mexico has significantly improved its four- and six-year graduation rates.

However, for a variety of reasons that include a better economy, anemic high school graduation rates and the aforementioned improved graduation performance for our college students, enrollment has declined statewide, falling from 155,065 in 2010 to 133,830 in 2016. At the same time, a state budget devastated by low oil and gas prices has meant deep cuts in higher education funding. Another dark cloud on the horizon: the lottery scholarship is expected to cover only 60 percent of tuition costs next year – down from 90 percent.

New Mexico State University President Garrey Carruthers has taken a strong lead in making NMSU more efficient by cutting the bureaucracy. At UNM, interim President Chaouki Abdallah and his predecessor, Bob Frank, have worked hard to trim budgets with the least negative impact on students.

But these leaders now say we must look to change. Abdallah said in a recent Journal interview the state must have a plan, and his outside-the-box thinking includes options like making the state’s community college system the best in the nation to combining UNM, NMSU and New Mexico Tech – the state’s three research universities – into a world-class university.

Carruthers, in a speech to Albuquerque business leaders last week, said flat out we have too many colleges – or at least more than we can afford. This from a former governor who from 2015 to 2017 trimmed NMSU’s budget by $38 million and eliminated 729 positions.

The process will be painful, but New Mexico’s legislators and other leaders are going to have to address this dilemma. The alternative is a gradually diminishing system that ill serves the state and its students – a higher ed version of death by a thousand cuts.

Weed them out

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.