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Higher Ed must keep getting more students to degrees

When I was appointed Cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Higher Education Department (HED) in 2015, my goals were to repair the agency and to create a student-centric HED. As Cabinet secretary for HED, I was also the state higher education executive officer, with the responsibility to make decisions that were best for the state and for students – not for just one particular higher education institution (HEI), not just for the Legislature and not just for the executive. We have 31 remarkable public HEIs in our state and, through unprecedented collaboration these past four years, we have achieved nationally acclaimed accomplishments, all developed through the lens of what is best for the state and for students.

Early on, we found that it was taking students 154 credit hours to get a four-year bachelor’s degree – vs. the recommended 120 hours – and 99 credit hours to get a two-year associate degree – vs. the recommended 60 hours – in our state. We had to shift the statewide focus to on-time completion.

Students who transferred between institutions would frequently find that courses would not transfer or not count toward general education or degree requirements. Students had to repeat courses, delay graduation, and increase cost and debt. In fact, only 20 percent of students who transferred to a four-year college would go on to graduate within even six years!

To solve this problem, we immediately worked to build a statewide common course numbering system (CCNS). Due to the decentralized nature of New Mexico’s higher ed institutions, HED could not simply mandate the adoption of such a system. Instead, we facilitated a nonprescriptive, bottom-up approach that respected the curriculum processes and academic freedoms inherent to higher education. By working with teams of discipline-specific faculty, HED oversaw the review of nearly 10,000 course syllabi in 121 academic disciplines in less than two years – every single lower division course at every public HEI in the state. The faculty committees worked to review and identify equivalent courses and wrote common course names, descriptions and student learning outcomes for those courses. Students now have assurance that lower-division courses they complete will transfer and, if they are part of the student’s chosen degree plan, fully articulate between institutions.

The CCNS is just one example of the extremely productive work we accomplished through unprecedented collaboration, and on a timeline thought to be impossible. The Texas system took nearly two decades and Arizona still does not have a fully integrated statewide CCNS. HED also led faculty to reform the general education curriculum to focus on the development of essential skills. These initiatives will help more students graduate on time with quality credentials, and decrease state spending and student loan debt through tuition savings for thousands of students.

My focus has been on completion for all of our students. Together with all of our stakeholders, we established a postsecondary attainment goal: The Route to 66. For our state to thrive and have a qualified workforce to meet the demands of today’s economy, we need 66 percent of working-age New Mexicans to have some postsecondary credential – a certificate or associate, bachelor’s or graduate degree – by 2030. To achieve this, we must continue to focus on graduation rates for both traditional students – first-time, full-time freshmen who go straight to college right after high school – and nontraditional students – those who did not go from high school to college, went to college but did not finish or adults who have no college education.

Every single HEI has increased graduation rates for traditional students since we implemented reforms and shifted focus to completion – from a low of 0 percent to over 30 percent. This is fabulous progress, but we have a long way to go.

We must continue to focus on completion for nontraditional students – the single mother with two jobs or the father who thinks he could never complete college. These are the students for whom our HEIs must be more responsive. These students cannot take Tuesday/Thursday courses at 2 p.m. We must reform class schedules to help them complete.

Time is the enemy of student completion and the academy must be flexible. This is why I have pushed our state to complete the CCNS and begin development of statewide degree maps and broad meta-majors for undecided students. We must help students get to the finish line. It is essential to their success and the success of the state as a whole.