Waning resources. An increasingly disparate student population. Global competition.
There’s a sea change underway in higher education, and colleges and universities in New Mexico – and elsewhere – are attempting to adjust.
According to New Mexico State University Chancellor Garrey Carruthers, “It’s really a whole new world.”
Speaking at a higher education town hall in Albuquerque last week, Carruthers said the shifting landscape has prompted NMSU to rethink everything from its administrative structure to the layout of its dormitories.
His peers echoed his nothing-is-the-same sentiment.
Western New Mexico University, for example, had just 8 percent of its courses online in 2008. Now the school, located in Silver City, offers 45 percent on the Internet.
At the University of New Mexico, leaders are accommodating straight-from-high-school freshmen, the adults pursuing a career-change education, and several other nontraditional segments. Interim President Chaouki Abdallah, also an engineering professor, illustrated the changes by describing one of his students: a military member who took one of Abdallah’s online courses while stationed in Afghanistan – then later enrolled in another of Abdallah’s online classes, despite having returned home to Albuquerque.
Defining a “student” is no longer easy, but defining a university’s mission is perhaps even more difficult. Students, parents, academics and the community at large might each expect something different, according to Abdallah.
“It’s not obvious, or it’s not agreed upon, that a university should be doing one thing,” he said.
While the state’s public colleges and universities are attempting to meet the needs of a more diverse population, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, warned them not to expect any increase in state funding.
“The bottom line is we’ve cut that pie into so many pieces that it’s very difficult for us to do justice financially to all the institutions in the state of New Mexico,” he said.
Becoming more entrepreneurial and efficient were major themes of the discussion, hosted by the Journal, KANW-FM and the New Mexico Council of University Presidents, and that featured Abdallah, Carruthers, New Mexico Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron, WNMU President Joseph Shepard, Central New Mexico Community College President Kathie Winograd and NMSU faculty senate president Chris Brown.
Sen. Smith and Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, joined by phone, while Northern New Mexico College President Richard Bailey Jr. and New Mexico Tech President Stephen Wells also spoke.
Many issues dogging New Mexico’s public colleges and universities are playing out on campuses across the country. Enrollment, for example, has fallen nationwide since the recession.
But New Mexico’s institutions are wrestling with more than just national shifts. New Mexico itself has its own set of problems. A stagnant population and one of the country’s lowest high school graduation rate are choking the colleges’ student pipeline. And a state budget shortfall has wiped out about 8 percent of higher ed’s state funding in just the past two years.
“The system doesn’t exist by itself,” Abdallah said of higher education. “It exists within the bigger system of society.”
Critics have argued that New Mexico’s decentralized higher education network makes things harder. New Mexico has 31 public post-secondary institutions. They offer a combined 77 educational access points.
Some consider that availability a good thing.
“Access to quality, affordable higher education should not just be reserved for students who live near big cities,” Bailey said.
Sen. Smith, however, said the state has over-extended itself. New Mexico puts about 13 percent of all its general fund money into higher education every year, more on a percentage basis than nearly every other state. The schools will get about $750 million this fiscal year.
Smith said he thinks that money is spread too thin, and that the state can no longer properly fund all of the schools it has.
But is consolidation the answer?
Damron said it is not clear – though her department is working to find out. As part of a strategic planning process, HED has convened people from across the state – both from the schools and other interested communities, like business – to examine systems across the country and determine whether some form of consolidation would make sense for New Mexico. It should have recommendations by year’s end.
“We may have too many (schools); we may not have too many,” Damron said, noting that neighboring Arizona has more access points per capita. “That needs to be studied thoroughly.”
Despite what she called the “decentralized” nature of New Mexico’s college and university system, Damron said the schools have successfully collaborated on reforms spearheaded by her office, including a new common course numbering system.
She said New Mexico’s strengths also include affordability; despite tuition hikes at most state institutions, some say even New Mexico’s out-of-state rates beat other states’ resident rates.
Damron said she sees opportunity amid the current challenges – a chance for New Mexico to rethink and retool higher education in a way that makes sense for New Mexico.
“It’s an exciting time to be in higher education,” she said. “The world is ours.”
The evolution is already afoot at individual campuses.
“There are no quick fixes,” Shepard said. “This is kind of like your retirement – you start years and years in advance.”
Winograd and Carruthers highlighted the ways their schools have cut in some places and expanded in others. Winograd said a reorganization that began in 2008 has reduced overhead by eliminating some administrative positions but also through sustainability measures that trimmed electric bills and other expenses.
At the same time, the community college – which serves an estimated 40,000 people annually – has carefully considered the state’s workforce needs and developed new programming, like non-credit coding boot camps, that fulfilled community demand and generated new revenue.
NMSU also started a major restructuring effort that has already yielded $11 million in savings just on the administrative side, Carruthers said. The school is now investigating possible efficiencies in its academic enterprise.
Faculty senate president Chris Brown credited NMSU administration with including the faculty in the discussion, stressing the importance of having them at the table. Shared governance is sometimes “messy,” he said but “I feel very strongly that this is a necessary principal in how universities are run.”
While NMSU has cut in some places, it has increased its expenditures in some areas, such as marketing, as it tries to woo students.
“I learned a long time ago in economics … the way to success is early to bed, early to rise, work very hard and advertise,” Carruthers said. “… All the for-profits are advertising and they’re charging a whole lot more than our universities are charging for programs not being provided by the type of faculty we have.”
Western’s online expansion has allowed it to save money by closing satellite locations in Gallup and Lordsburg, while also greatly expanding its reach. Only about 2,000 of Western’s 3,500 students are in Silver City. And about half of its students are now at least 24 years old.
The school is “competing globally – competing in terms of our quality of education, competing in terms of our pricing, competing in every sense of the word,” Shepard said.
UNM is also saving money through reorganizing and bolstering its online programming. But Abdallah said institutional efficiency matters little if it isn’t also effective, so UNM has devoted energy and money into student retention and success efforts. It has doubled its four-year graduation rate, doing so faster than any other school in the country, Abdallah said.
“In 2010, we had our largest incoming class ever, and it was our worst performing class, because we didn’t have the support system for them. We lost a lot of those kids after a year,” he said. “That’s the worst thing we can do is get them in and after a year they leave with some debt or they leave with no credential. That’s worse than not letting them in the door.”
Wells said New Mexico Tech has sought new revenue streams, trying to commercialize its student and faculty innovations and turning to successful alumni for help. One graduate provided the funds for an online calculus course, he said.
Larrañaga commended the universities for cutting costs and otherwise adjusting to the new reality.
“I’m not going to call this a crisis,” he said, “but I think it’s a challenge to get us together and thinking about what do we need to do as the next step.”