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Editorial: Lawmakers, new governor must do higher (ed) math

You don’t have to be a Ph.D. in mathematics to see New Mexico’s higher education numbers don’t add up to long-term fiscal sustainability.

On one side of the equation is funding, an area in which the state’s taxpayers should get substantial credit for effort. The state’s higher education appropriation for the current fiscal year is $792 million, divvied up between an astonishing 32 institutions of higher education around a state with a population of about 2 million. Our per-capita funding of colleges and universities is among the highest in the nation. Meanwhile, the amount students pay in tuition and fees is among the lowest.

That sounds like a great deal for students, so they should be knocking down the doors to get in.

Wrong answer.

Because the other side of the equation deals with enrollment, which fell 18.6 percent statewide between 2010 and 2017. And the most recent incoming freshman numbers paint a bleak picture going forward – especially at the University of New Mexico, where that number fell by a stunning 17.6 percent.

New Mexico State University managed to bump up the size of its freshman class by inserting another variable – aggressively raising its scholarship allotment from $9.6 million in 2016-17 to $16.4 million this year – making it even more attractive from a financial perspective. But the university’s new president and chancellor have questioned whether it’s the right method given long-term budget concerns. Indeed.

One of the issues nobody really wants to talk about is the fact we have seven four-year colleges and universities with a number of additional branch campuses. Not to mention community colleges such as Central New Mexico Community College that also compete for students and tax dollars.

All of them are integral to their respective communities as economic engines. They deliver value and are woven into the social fabric.

But does all this make sense? The COMBINED incoming main campus freshman classes for the state’s four “comprehensive” colleges – Eastern in Portales, Western in Silver City, Highlands in Las Vegas, N.M., and northern New Mexico in Española – is 1,282. The state has high schools with more students.

Meanwhile, the many campuses around the state need maintenance. And upgrading. And new facilities. To that end, the state’s voters are being asked to approve a $128 million general obligation bond this election that won’t go anywhere near far enough in addressing capital needs for institutions big and small, ranging from $500,000 at Eastern New Mexico University-Ruidoso to renovate a recently acquired retail building to create more instruction space to $4.3 million to build a new College Pathways to Career Center at University of New Mexico-Taos to $22.8 million for construction on the UNM main campus in Albuquerque. The needs are many, and the philosophy is “peanut butter” – spread too thin, but it’s the best we can do.

The Journal has endorsed passage of the bond issue because it makes no sense not to take care of the massive investment we’ve already made while figuring out the best way forward.

Enrollment is a complicated challenge. How much tuition students should pay is a huge question – the higher it is, the more it compounds the enrollment problem. Should we keep pumping money into bricks and mortar and traditional higher education structure when other universities are aggressively recruiting students right here to their online degree programs? And these aren’t fly-by-night degree mills – we’re talking schools like Purdue and Arizona State.

No one has a crystal ball. But the math tells us that as a state we need a serious conversation about how to allocate higher education resources, balancing access with sound economics and sustainability.

It’s a difficult conversation, but one the next governor and Legislature need to have.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.