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Caution needed on college closures

The higher education landscape in New Mexico is witnessing dramatic changes, forcing universities and colleges to adapt through innovative solutions or risk the possibility of becoming obsolete.

With reductions in state funding, falling enrollment and the state’s stagnant population, there has been a suggestion that New Mexico has too many colleges.

Our state currently has 31 public higher education institutions, 10 branch community colleges, and 77 access points into higher education.

During a recent town hall discussion on higher education, New Mexico Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron noted that “we may have too many (schools); we may not have too many.” Her department is working on a study due by the end of the year to find out, and all of us support her efforts.

While that study is being conducted, I believe it’s important to emphasize a few important points that should be at the forefront of any discussion about the future of higher education in New Mexico.

First and foremost, higher education should be viewed as an investment into entire communities rather than solely a commodity benefitting individual students.

According to a recent study, students who graduate from New Mexico’s four-year colleges and universities see an average return of more than 150 percent of tuition costs within five years.

That’s 150 percent of their monetary investment – and yours – going straight back into the communities they live and work within a very short period of time, creating a domino effect of development and upliftment.

One Northern student who joined the college after veering off the traditional educational path, worked his tail off and graduated magna cum laude in May, and now makes $80,000 a year at a local job he loves.

Was this a return on investment for that individual? Yes. For his family? Absolutely. But we should also see this as a return on investment for our community, and, yes, for the state of New Mexico.

Like many Northern graduates, he and his family are staying in northern New Mexico – their hearts, their families and their lives are centered here; they are buying real estate, shopping in local stores, paying more taxes and supporting local businesses of all types. In other words, his effort, and the state’s investment in higher education, ultimately helps everyone in New Mexico.

Another point we should not lose sight of is that affordable higher education should not be reserved for students who live in, or close to, big cities. We at Northern New Mexico College primarily serve rural communities in one of the most underserved regions in the state, and possibly in the country. For our students, an education isn’t just helpful – it is transformative.

It is not in New Mexico’s interests to force such students out of their communities and away from their support systems while they attempt to gain an education. On the contrary, we should be doing more to accommodate rural populations by developing programs that address their local educational and economic needs, to revive our rural economies and create sustainable development. That way we make sure that rural populations learn – and earn – in their communities without needing to move in search of educational and economic opportunities elsewhere.

Secretary Damron’s efforts are right on track. We do need to study this issue carefully, and to explore ways to make our higher education systems more efficient and productive. But let us also make sure that we don’t leave anyone out any further on the periphery. Those short-term gains may have long-term consequences for our state.