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Collaboration lifting college graduation rates

University of New Mexico graduates fill The Pit during the 2015 commencement ceremony for undergraduates. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

New Mexico colleges and universities are graduating more freshmen in four years than they were eight years ago. In some cases, universities have more than doubled the number of four-year graduates.

That is great news for our state’s future. It helps save students, families, and taxpayers money, while also creating an educated workforce in New Mexico.

As I said during my first summit on higher education, “A little exploration in college is a good thing, but a lot of wandering is not. It drives up the cost for everyone involved, including taxpayers. We need to help our students more efficiently settle into their discipline of choice, and then we need to make sure they graduate.”

So, when I took office I set out to help students graduate college in four years.

I directed the Higher Education Department to collaborate with our colleges and universities and focus on making key policy changes to ensure that more students graduate on time.

They got to work. The state, regents and university administrators at universities and colleges across the state worked together to adopt four-year graduation tuition incentives. Now, at UNM, a student’s final semester is free if they graduate in four years or less. And across the state, universities adjusted degree programs that allow students to graduate with 120 credit hours — making it possible for students to graduate in four years.

Gov. Susana Martinez

Not only that but the number of credit hours students are taking before they earn their college diploma is also dropping as students are incentivized to complete their degrees quicker. New Mexico’s college students used to take 154 credit hours to get a bachelor’s degree and 99 credit hours to get an associate’s degree. Not today. Currently, the average student completes 143 credit hours and 91 credit hours, respectively.

We created exploratory majors, known as “meta-majors,” that help students explore a particular field and take courses that count toward multiple degree programs within their broad area of interest. This reduces the likelihood of students taking courses that do not ultimately count toward graduation.

It’s not hard to believe that the four-year graduation rate at UNM has increased significantly. The graduation rate at UNM in 2009 was 12 percent, but today it’s increased to 32 percent. And the four-year graduation rate at Eastern New Mexico University has doubled and at New Mexico State University it’s increased by seven percentage points. Now, both schools have a 22 percent four-year graduation rate.

We’re also setting our future college students up for success.

In just two years, university provosts and faculty worked with my administration to restructure the general education curriculum so that it will better develop essential skills that prepare students for their careers. And, I’m proud to report that later this month we will have completed common course numbering across our higher education system. As a result, credits will transfer more seamlessly between colleges and universities in New Mexico than ever before. This effort will drastically improve student transfers, because they won’t have to re-take classes they’ve already taken once they transfer.

We’re starting in high school too. By raising the standards and finally measuring student outcomes we are better preparing them for college. We’ve also expanded advanced placement courses — especially for low-income, minority, and rural students — and more students than ever are taking and passing AP exams, giving them a head start on their degrees.

I’m so proud that we’re helping families save money and students be successful in college. There’s still more to do, but together we can keep up this momentum and build a better higher education system than ever before.