Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
After years of steady declines, enrollment in New Mexico’s public colleges and universities may be looking up.
Enrollment grew this fall by nearly 4,000 students, an increase of about 4% from fall last year, according to New Mexico Higher Education Department data. Now at about 105,000 total students, officials said this year marked the first in a decade that enrollment in the state’s higher education institutions saw a rebound.
A major factor, Higher Education Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez said, is the Opportunity Scholarship program, which this year was bolstered to provide free tuition to more New Mexicans, including people hoping to return to college after dropping out.
This fall, according to the HED, over 34,000 students received the scholarship, and over 10,000 got the Lottery Scholarship. The department estimates that 1,600 students are getting the Opportunity Scholarship at tribal colleges, and almost 1,000 are getting the Lottery Scholarship.
“Every time I am out and meeting with students, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, we’re hearing that their nieces, nephews, children, grandchildren, are going to college or staying in New Mexico because tuition-free college exists here,” Rodriguez told the Journal. “We’re feeling very confident that this is a trend that’s going to be going in a positive direction for a while.”
Leading the way in this year’s enrollment gains were independent community colleges, which include institutions like Central New Mexico Community College. Collectively, they added nearly 1,900 students in the last year, a 5.5% increase.
As for the state’s highest-enrolled institutions of higher education – the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and CNM – each saw increases from last year of 1.6%, 2.6% and 3.1%, respectively.
Enrollment in tribal colleges, on the other hand, fell by a bit over 2% from last year’s head count, which in turn was over 300 students shy of pre-pandemic totals.
Part of the reason for that, Rodriguez said, is that certain institutions, including Navajo Technical University and the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, were hit particularly hard by the pandemic and remote learning.
“COVID hit our tribal nations substantially. I think that’s very apparent when we look at our tribal colleges and some of those dips,” she said.
That all being said, this year’s fall head count in tribal colleges was still slightly higher than the average enrollment over the last eight years.
The same was not true for New Mexico overall.
Overall, New Mexico’s c
urrent enrollment numbers are nowhere near pre-pandemic levels, which were around 120,000 in 2019 and neared 134,500 in 2015.
To get back to those levels, Rodriguez said the state is investing in things like behavioral and mental health services and addressing food insecurity, both of which she said have proved barriers for students.
The HED is also seeking an additional $25 million on top of the $75 million allocated for the Opportunity Scholarship this year, to help cover projected enrollment growth and tuition increases, a department spokeswoman said.
The scholarship, Rodriguez noted, was a big part of the department’s response to the pandemic, in part because many New Mexico college students were essential workers during the pandemic, and juggled family and work along with their education.
“How are they going to go back to school if they’re focused on all that, and on top of that, they have to pay for it?” she said. “That’s where the Opportunity Scholarship kicked in.”