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UNM enrollment drops 7.2%

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Enrollment at the University of New Mexico has dropped for the sixth straight year, with this fall’s slide a larger-than-expected 7.2 percent. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Enrollment at the state’s largest university has taken an unexpectedly hard hit this fall and will force a campus that has already weathered years of cuts to reckon with another major shortfall.

The University of New Mexico this week said its fall semester enrollment slid more than 7 percent, meaning student tuition and fee revenue will come in $9.7 million lower than expected.

The institution’s chief academic official warned in a campuswide email Wednesday that the university faces some “hard decisions” both in the short and long term, though UNM would do what it could to insulate programming central to the academic mission.

Richard Wood, interim provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, said the university will use about $4 million in reserves to help plug the hole. Budget cuts will help bridge the remaining gap, but he said the institution will take a “strategic” approach rather than slashing all areas equally.

Continued investment in areas such as student success initiatives and research remain critical despite the financial challenges, he said.

“We’ve taken enough cuts over the last 10 years, we believe many, many units are just down to the bone. To do across-the-board cuts (would) debilitate the university,” Wood said in an interview. “We’re going to do some more strategic thinking and measuring (for) how we go about this.”

Years of declining enrollment and state funding reductions have financially strained UNM. Although the state provided a small boost this fiscal year, state support remains below 2015 levels.

The university’s Academic Affairs operation has had to absorb more than $25 million in cuts over the past decade, according to Wood, who said any additional trimming must be done with care and deliberation.

He said the campus’ “budget leadership team,” which convenes each fall to help draft plans for the next fiscal year, began meeting Thursday and will play an active part in helping UNM reconcile the present year’s shortfall. The team’s more than 20 members represent the administration, faculty, staff and student government.

Attendees include Becka Myers, president of the Associated Students of UNM, who said she wants to work with the administration to get the best outcome for students.

“We’re at an important crossroad as a university, and I’m hopeful that we can move forward together through this challenge with students at the decision-making table,” she said in a written statement.

UNM had anticipated an enrollment drop this fall – just not on this scale. UNM’s student population is now 24,393, down from 26,278 in 2017 – a slide of 7.2 percent.

The student population had fallen the past five years for a cumulative drop of 9.3 percent from 2012 to 2017.

The university projected a 2.5 percent dip in 2018 and built the current year budget around that assumption.

But officials say a number of factors led to nearly triple the impact.

“This is a very exceptional occasion to be this far off on the targets,” Terry Babbitt, vice provost of enrollment management and analytics, said in an email to the Journal.

UNM has not publicly released an enrollment report showing the number of freshmen versus returning students or breakdowns by gender, ethnicity and college.

But Babbitt said lighter freshman enrollment and higher attrition, particularly at lower levels, appear to have contributed to the steeper-than-expected drop.

The university this year implemented a campus living requirement for freshmen, which Wood said may have played a small part in the light freshman class but was not a major factor.

Instead, he cited an improving local economy – which prompts young men in particular to choose jobs over college – and New Mexico’s population stagnation. Competition is another issue, though even nearby Central New Mexico Community College is reporting losses. A CNM spokesman said the current head count is 3.6 percent below the same time last year, but numbers are not considered official until the end of the semester.

With UNM experiencing its sixth straight year of shrinking enrollment, it is forming a new enrollment task force, which Wood said aims to turn people from across campus into ambassadors for the university.

“It’s kind of all hands on deck,” he said. “We just can’t rely on a growing population and students naturally coming; we’re going to need everybody in every unit, from advisers and faculty to staff and students out there telling our story.”

Pamela Pyle, president of UNM’s Faculty Senate, said she would be part of the task force.

“We need to do a good job of getting out to the public the importance of a college education,”she said. “As we continue to do that, I think we’ll see our enrollment numbers climb back up.”

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