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UNM, NMSU rated ‘leaders’ in new Brookings Institute report

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Only 20 percent of the nation’s public universities excel at both promoting opportunity and generating research, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution.

Two of them are in New Mexico.

Brookings named New Mexico State University and the University of New Mexico to its “leaders” list for having both high research activity and high social mobility — as measured by the schools’ accessibility to low-income students and how far those students move up the income ranks.

NMSU was listed as second best and UNM was eighth.

The Washington, D.C., think tank’s report evaluated 342 selective, four-year, public universities for “Ladders, labs or laggards,” a report authored by Dimitrios Halikias and Richard V. Reeves and issued this month.

The report rated public universities for their benefits to society, designating them “labs” if they promote knowledge via research, or “ladders” if they are associated with social mobility. It classified those that rate well in both areas “leaders” and those that do poorly in both “laggards.”

The authors argue that public money flowing into universities often benefits students who are already considered upper-middle class, noting that most schools studied have more students from the top 20 percent of the income distribution than the bottom 40 percent.

New Mexico’s schools, however, fared particularly well on the “access” measure, boasting some of the nation’s highest concentrations of low-income students. NMSU has the second highest rate of any public research university, with 17.9 percent of its students coming from the bottom 20 percent of the income spectrum, the report said. Only University of Texas at El Paso has more. UNM is eighth on the access list with a 13.6-percent concentration of low-income students.

School leaders say that’s largely a function of New Mexico’s economy. Both NMSU and UNM get most of their students from within New Mexico, a state with one of the nation’s highest poverty rates.

UNM does not consider students’ ability to pay when recruiting, said vice provost of enrollment management, Terry Babbitt. It makes  grants available to high-need students — a population Babbitt said fares just as well as any when provided adequate financial backing.

“High-need students with the right funding support succeed at the same level as other students,” Babbitt said in an email. “For example, a high-need student receiving the Lottery Scholarship graduates at nearly the same rate as students without need.”

NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers said NMSU has various programs to help lower-income students. He cited one, called CAMP, College Assistance Migrant Program, that specifically aids seasonal and migratory farmworkers and their children. He added that NMSU has a “robust” scholarship program and provides micro-grants to students on the verge of dropping out of school because of low-level debts.

But NMSU’s accessibility serves as just part of Brookings’ “leader” distinction, and Carruthers said the school’s research activity is just as important — and provides students a chance to study with “top flight” faculty.

“We take a great deal of pride in taking a poor boy, like myself, and by giving them an excellent education,” said Carruthers, an NMSU alum.

Brookings used mobility rate data from researchers at “The Equality of Opportunity Project” and used The Carnegie Classifications of Institutions of Higher Education ratings to determine research activity.

According to “The Equality of Opportunity Project” data, 17.8 percent of NMSU students whose parents are in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution go on to reach the top 20 percent themselves. At UNM, 15 percent with low-income parents reach the top 20 percent.

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