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State’s real issue is weak economy

When I was working in Central America, the economy suffered a near collapse. The symbol of this problem was … bread. Many towns and villages supported a modest establishment where a local business owner baked bread, tortillas and other goods. It was a daily ritual for inhabitants of the towns and villages to walk to the bakery at a designated time to purchase their goods. There were many and spirited conversations while people stood in line. Purchasing bread was really a significant community event.

While I was working there, the economy took a deep and unexpected turn for the worse. The country relied heavily on sugar, fruit and seafood exports. For a variety of economic factors including global economic conditions that were not carefully studied, there was a significant overreliance on a single source of revenue: exports. The national economy plummeted, resulting in rampant inflation and depressed economic conditions. Things were bad all over, but the issue I mostly heard and read about was the cost of bread. People’s jobs were cut, and many jobs were lost altogether. As a result, people found it increasingly difficult to purchase their daily supply of bread, and overall food security was threatened in many homes. People rose up, wrote letters to newspaper editors, and complained to elected officials.

The government response? Bread was too expensive. Bakers were making too much money. There were calls for bakers to cut into their ability to make a living. The problem – the real problem – was not the cost of bread at all. It was a failing economy based for many years on a single source of revenue: exports to North America, China and Europe. The problem did not have anything to do with bread whatsoever, and efforts to reduce the price of that commodity did not, and really could not, solve the real problem at all. The economy was the real problem. The cost of bread was a dodge.

This experience reminded me so much of some of the findings of a recent report by our state government focusing on the cost-drivers in New Mexico higher education. One of the key findings in the 73-page report is that tuition increases at our colleges and universities, “will threaten many New Mexicans’ ability to afford a college education,” and several recommendations and suggestions are made to cut costs at our state institutions. I think some of the recommendations have merit, but are we addressing the real problem?

Every single person I know wants to keep the costs of attendance at our colleges and universities as low as possible. Everyone thinks that is a good idea. Some countries essentially support postsecondary institutions at levels allowing them to charge nothing or virtually nothing at all to students. In our last presidential election, we vigorously debated the notion of no-cost college education for American students, but ultimately it did not move forward. So here in New Mexico, are college costs the problem we need to solve, and is the solution cutting them someway and somehow? My experience in Central America suggests otherwise.

New Mexico has been and remains one of the most affordable places to go to college in the nation. In national rankings of affordability, New Mexico is consistently in the top tier, often in the top five. We lead the nation when it comes to affordability. Tuition is low at state schools, and I should note that Highlands consistently ranks as the most affordable institution in the state. Like the cost of bread during my time in Central America, the cost of college attendance in New Mexico is not the real problem.

The real problem, the real challenge, is our state economy. A recent report by 24/7 Wall Street ranked New Mexico as the worst-run state in the nation based on unemployment and poverty rates. New Mexico recently ranked 49th in the nation on overall child well-being and had the highest rate of children living in poverty. Another nonprofit organization, Kids First, noted that about one-third of all kids in New Mexico live in poverty. Yet another national organization ranked us dead last – 51st place, which included the District of Columbia – in overall economic health.

The real problem in New Mexico is not the cost of college. Of course everyone wants to keep the cost as low as possible, and if there are ways of accomplishing that goal that make sense and do not further weaken a state having a hard time keeping up with the improving national economy, let’s try them. But I urge policy makers, elected officials and the citizens of New Mexico to work hard to solve the real problem we face: our economy.

That’s the real problem we must address. Until it is, the cost of attendance at New Mexico colleges and universities, like the cost of bread during my time in Central America, is a bit of a dodge.

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