Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
This fall’s unforeseen enrollment tumble at the University of New Mexico has leaders scrambling to plug a corresponding $9.7 million revenue shortfall on this year’s books.
But the dwindling headcount will likely reverberate well beyond today.
Newly released breakdowns show UNM’s student losses are particularly acute among freshmen, creating what UNM’s admissions director calls a “four-year problem” as the diminished class advances ahead toward degrees.
While UNM’s total student population sank 7.2 percent, the number of first-time freshmen at New Mexico’s largest university plunged 17.6 percent between fall 2017 and fall 2018 – a total of 566 students. Officials had forecast only a 2.5-percent enrollment decline.
Admissions and Recruitment Director Matthew Hulett said the freshman nosedive is unlike anything in recent memory, and one with longer-term implications.
Now the university is searching for the cause – and what it can do to prevent it from becoming a trend.
“There’s the million-dollar question,” Hulett said.
Some things are already in motion.
UNM is establishing an enrollment task force, which Hulett said should yield some new ideas and guidance. The university also recently surveyed prospective students about why they did not choose UNM and will soon gather data showing which other schools those students selected.
The university is also making small changes, such as offering specific tours of facilities and schools that suit recruits’ academic interests rather than more general walks with admissions personnel.
More generally, the university will emphasize its contention that UNM – which holds the highest research activity designation a doctoral university can achieve – is “also a great value,” Hulett said.
“We have to make that argument a little stronger,” he said.
UNM’s total headcount – including undergraduate, graduate and non-degree students – has slipped every year since 2012, though it took a sharper-than-expected drop this year. Overall enrollment is down to 24,393 from 26,278.
Many schools across New Mexico are weathering population slides. Total statewide postsecondary enrollment fell 18.6 percent between 2010 and 2017, according to New Mexico Higher Education Department data.
And the losses continued mounting on many campuses this fall.
Except for Western New Mexico University (which gained 161 students or 5.2 percent), total enrollment decreased this fall at all of the state’s public four-year colleges and universities.
The declines ranged from 0.2 percent at Eastern New Mexico University to UNM’s 7.2 percent.
UNM officials have pinned the enrollment slump on a complex mix of factors that include New Mexico’s population stagnation, less regard for higher education’s value, fear over campus crime, and an improving state economy that means potential students pick jobs over education.
But freshmen losses might have slightly different causes, Hulett said, noting an increasing reluctance among young people to take on debt, and growing price-consciousness.
Money emerged as a major factor during a recent survey of freshmen admitted by UNM but who did not ultimately enroll on main campus.
Asked the reasons they bypassed UNM, nearly half of the 120 respondents (48.3 percent) said getting a better scholarship or financial aid package at another school significantly influenced their decision.
More than a third (36.4 percent) said the high cost of tuition played a significant role in their decision, and 27.5 percent rated the lower costs of community college as a key reason they skipped UNM.
Tuition and fees for a full-time New Mexico resident start at $7,322 per year at UNM, though roughly one-third of its undergraduate students get tuition assistance through the New Mexico Lottery scholarship.
This is the first year UNM is requiring freshmen to live on campus, and some have questioned what role that played in the enrollment numbers.
Eleven percent of the surveyed students who did not pick UNM said the housing rule significantly impacted their decision.
UNM is offering exceptions from the housing rule, including for those who live with their parents within a 30-mile radius of campus, are married or meet other specific criteria.
Freshmen around the state
UNM is not alone in its plight. Fewer freshmen matriculated at ENMU and WNMU this year.
But New Mexico State University and the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology – which, with UNM, are the state’s only research institutions – experienced a freshman surge.
After two years of losing freshmen, New Mexico Tech gained 62 this year, a 25.8 percent increase for a school where total enrollment usually hovers around 2,000.
Asked how it boosted the first-year ranks, admissions director Anthony Ortiz said, “We gave the New Mexico high school kids more attention – we went back to the high school more often, we hosted more receptions, we created better relationships with the counselors.”
New Mexico Tech did not increase scholarships, he said.
But that was clearly the strategy at New Mexico State University, which has 10.6 percent more freshmen this fall than last.
NMSU – which has seen its total enrollment crater 23 percent since 2010 – has aggressively raised its scholarship allotment. It went from $9.6 million in the 2016-17 academic year to $14.8 million last year. It’s budgeted to jump to $16.4 million this year.
The university’s new president and chancellor have credited that for the freshmen growth but have questioned whether it is the right method moving forward, saying it has created budget concerns and not yet raised the institution’s total enrollment, which dipped another 1 percent this year. A university spokesman said NMSU would adjust the amount of awards and the qualification requirements for fall 2019.
NMSU is among UNM’s chief recruiting competitors, though it’s not clear how many admitted UNM students opted for the Las Cruces-based institution. Hulett said UNM should get more information in the coming weeks about where its prospective students went instead.
But Hulett said he heard directly from some potential UNM students who had far greater scholarship offers at NMSU. One young woman, he said, told him she would get $5,500 every year at NMSU, plus the lottery – something UNM could not match.
“Her academic credentials as we have them were below where we could offer her a scholarship,” he said.