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Editorial: UNM tuition decision must fuel bigger debate

Last week the University of New Mexico Board of Regents rejected a general increase in tuition – a move that under the best of circumstances will force the university administration to look for savings to finance faculty and staff raises, could help limit student debt, and should force a conversation on UNM’s future.

Regent Jamie Koch pragmatically convinced the board to unanimously reject a proposed 1.5 percent tuition increase to help offset an approved $6 million in annual salary increases – after the faculty and staff generously suggested students pay a 3 percent hike to finance their raises. Instead, regents told the administration to find revenue or savings elsewhere, including the generous health-care plans for folks who no longer work for UNM. That’s a smart, albeit controversial, move that puts current students and employees first.

Not quite as pragmatic was the board’s decision to jack up tuition for graduate students in Management, Architecture and Planning, and Speech and Hearing Sciences. It makes no long-term sense to specifically target the wallets of students who have succeeded at earning bachelor’s degrees and are now getting the advanced degrees the state needs to drive the new economy.

And that brings the discussion to what UNM wants to be:

• The current extension of the compulsory K-12 public school system seemingly obligated to take all comers, ready or not, and saddle them with long-term debt for the chance to experience a few semesters of college.

• Or a new and separate post-secondary system that takes students prepared to succeed at a four-year university and graduates them more quickly to better jobs that allow them to pay off smaller student loans.

The latter is fairer to all involved, considering less than half of UNM students get a bachelor’s on the six-year plan and career students cost the university much more than their on-time counterparts. It would force the K-12 system to better prepare its graduates for college success instead of forcing UNM to try, with limited success, to provide remedial education to many high school graduates who can’t do college work – a practice described as higher education’s “bridge to nowhere.” It could help reduce students’ financial burdens by getting them out of college on time and with a degree that makes them marketable employees. And it should free up money in the university’s budget to expand and improve offerings.

It is politically popular to not increase tuition, to hand out raises, to give every would-be student a college experience. It’s also fiscally and academically unsustainable if that experience ends with an upside-down degree-to-debt ratio. UNM regents made a move toward more fiscal accountability last week by demanding that savings fund additional spending. It’s important not only for current and future students but also employers and the state’s economy that the discussion continue.

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.