The University of New Mexico’s student population has dropped for the fifth straight year, declining 2.9 percent from 2016 and 9.3 percent since its 2012 peak.
The state’s largest university is reporting 26,278 total students for the fall 2017 semester. That’s 782 fewer than fall 2016.
UNM’s chief enrollment official cited multiple factors, including the shrinking value of the New Mexico Legislative Lottery Scholarship, which as many as one-third of its undergraduates use to help cover tuition costs.
Enrollment is a key financial concern for all of New Mexico’s universities, which have increasingly relied on tuition revenue in the face of dwindling state support. Tuition will cover about 43 percent of UNM’s academic enterprise budget this year, compared with 31 percent a decade ago.
But Terry Babbitt, vice provost of enrollment management and analytics, said the school also had an unusually large gap to fill after this year’s graduation.
More students than ever are graduating from UNM in four years: 29 percent. And 2017 marked the finish line for one of the largest classes in UNM history.
“You add those two (factors) up and that’s 500 people” more graduating than usual — “that’s a big decrease in full-time students,” Babbitt said.
Shrinking enrollment is not a New Mexico phenomenon. After spiking during the recession, total U.S. undergraduate enrollment fell each year between 2010 and 2015 for a total drop of about 6 percent, according to federal data.
Though UNM has sustained a heavier hit, its 2017 head count remains higher than its 2007 level (25,749).
New Mexico State University, the state’s second-largest school, has had a more dramatic slide, dropping 22 percent since its peak in 2010. That includes a 2.8 percent decline from 2016 to 2017, much of it in continuing undergraduates.
But an NMSU spokesman said the school has made progress in its graduation rates, improving the four-year rate from 13 percent to 22 percent in the past four years. Officials also have cited a significant increase in freshman class size — 11 percent larger than last year — as cause for optimism.
The school has 14,432 total students on its Las Cruces campus this fall.
The fall enrollment figures came as no surprise at UNM, which had anticipated the dip when setting this year’s budget.
What it did not expect was a 3.9 percent loss in total credit hours — more than the past three years combined.
Babbitt said a few different trends might have contributed, including an uptick in part-time students. UNM has 320 additional online-only students — most of whom take lighter loads — than a year ago, a gain of 21 percent.
Some of the lost credit hours come in the lower-division classes. Babbitt said many students now arrive having earned those credits while still in high school; other students are more cost-conscious in the wake of the lottery scholarship changes and are opting to get early coursework done at less expensive two-year schools instead.
The lottery scholarship will pay just 60 percent of tuition costs this year, down from 90 percent in 2016-17.
Whereas the scholarship’s 1996 inception brought UNM a new wave of students — some of whom might otherwise have attended community college — Babbitt said its recent downsizing will sweep some away.
“When the lottery came into play, we were the biggest benefactor, and when it declines, we’ll probably suffer the most consequences,” he said. “We talk to all of our admits and a lot of them were on campus with us and going over costs, and a significant number said they’re going to CNM, for example, and they’ll see us later.”
Resident tuition for a year of full-time study (15-18 credit hours) at UNM costs approximately $5,286 per year, not including fees.
Tuition at Central New Mexico Community College for a full load (12-18 hours) runs $1,296.
CNM, the state’s largest community college, also has seen slight declines in lottery scholarship-subsidized students, according to spokesman Brad Moore.
But its overall enrollment seems to have stabilized. Preliminary fall 2017 numbers are just 148 students, or 0.6 percent, short of last fall. That’s after losing nearly 4,000 total between 2013 and 2016.
CNM currently has 24,633 students, though fall numbers are not yet official.
“We put more emphasis this fall on extra efforts to help more students get through the admissions and enrollment processes, which we believe helped enrollment,” Moore said in an email.