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NM’s higher ed system under microscope

Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron is leading a study of the 21 governing boards running New Mexico’s 31 public colleges and universities. (Jim Thompson/ Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico has 21 different governing boards running its 31 public colleges and universities, a higher education model some critics argue is inefficient and maybe even ineffective.

Now the state is actively exploring alternatives.

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The New Mexico Higher Education Department is leading a study to determine whether reorganization or consolidation would make more sense, and department Secretary Barbara Damron said she aims to deliver recommendations to the Legislature and governor by the end of this year.

Her department has enlisted about 100 people to help, including university administrators, faculty and other campus personnel, lawmakers, representatives from K-12 education, business and other interested groups.

Three committees are examining different topics: higher education governance models around the U.S.; the financial implications of reorganizing – or keeping things the same – in New Mexico; and what changes to state law, if any, a reorganization would require since many schools’ governance is dictated by the New Mexico Constitution.

Damron warned against advocating for any specific changes until the research is complete, noting the complexities involved.

“There is no one answer to how higher education should be structured,” she said. “We have essentially 50 labs (in 50 states) going on.”

The project is an outgrowth of a statewide higher education master-planning process HED initiated last August that yielded an “attainment goal” – that 66 percent of working-age New Mexicans will have some post-secondary credential by 2030 – and ushered in some reforms.

The effort recently narrowed to reorganization research due to what Damron called the “appetite” for such information.

New Mexico devotes about 13 percent of its general fund to higher education. Critics for years have complained that New Mexico’s decentralized higher education network has created unnecessary overlap and duplication, and calls for change have grown louder amid the state’s budget crisis. The state’s 31 public institutions have a combined 77 access points around the state.

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Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, warned during a recent higher education forum that the state’s higher education funding is spread too thin.

“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,” Smith said.

During the 2017 Legislature, Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, and Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, sponsored a joint memorial urging HED to study the costs and benefits of New Mexico’s system compared to others around the country.

McCamley said last week that New Mexico has a “disjointed” network of colleges and universities, making it harder to effect consistent change and limiting the ability to leverage New Mexico’s higher education assets.

He noted that the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology all sought a piece of the Sandia National Laboratories management contract when it went out for bid last year but did so as part of two different teams. Neither team won the contract.

McCamley also said New Mexico’s investment in higher education has not paid commensurate dividends on the workforce development front.

“Everybody knows something needs to get done; it’s just a question of what that turns out to be,” McCamley said. “But we have to treat this with a sense of urgency. We have to get better and do it sooner rather than later.”

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