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Raising the bar: NMSU to vote on minimum 2.75 GPA; UNM likes idea

Moises Ibarra, center, a UNM junior from Las Cruces, leads a group of freshmen to Johnson Center during freshmen orientation at UNM. N.M.'s two largest colleges are contemplating raising their minimum admission standards for incoming students. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Moises Ibarra, center, a UNM junior from Las Cruces, leads a group of freshmen to Johnson Center during freshmen orientation at UNM. N.M.’s two largest colleges are contemplating raising their minimum admission standards for incoming students. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

At a time when the number of high school graduates and college enrollment rates are flat, New Mexico State University is poised to raise an important admission standard for incoming freshmen: the minimum grade point average.

The university’s Board of Regents will likely vote on a measure on July 23 that includes raising the GPA from 2.5 to 2.75, effective in the fall of 2016.

“I expect it to pass,” Provost Dan Howard said Friday, “but I don’t know that it will.”

A similar discussion is just getting started at the University of New Mexico, where the issue has caused heated controversy in the past.

Raising standards would almost certainly – at least at first – reduce the number of entering freshmen at the state’s two largest schools. And that would come at a time when the state

is projected to see only a small increase in its number of high school graduates over the next decade.

But officials say, in the long term, the move is expected to strengthen the NMSU brand, improve graduation rates and bolster the university’s image outside of New Mexico, all of which would make it easier to compete for out-of-state and foreign students.

The provost, however, said none of those benefits were behind the move to raise the admission standard.

“Our motivation is student success,” Howard said, noting that NMSU is looking at a sizeable group of students whose GPA is under 2.75 and whose six-year graduation rate is under 20 percent.

“We’d like to offer them an alternative pathway to success,” he said.

The package the regents will consider next week includes a broader program called Guaranteed Pathway. It would place low-GPA high-schoolers in one of NMSU’s community colleges, where smaller classes generate a less competitive environment. Students who earn at least 24 credit hours and maintain a 2.5 GPA would be eligible to transfer to the main campus. The university expects no change in its diversity.

“University leaders have looked carefully at this issue, and there will be no significant change in the percentage of Hispanic students and students of other minority groups,” according to a written proposal prepared for the regents. Even if the changes were in place at the start of the 2013 school year, the numbers of minority groups and women “would be nearly the same.”

Howard said, beginning last fall, he and Faculty Senate leaders met with many campus and community groups to discuss the proposed changes. “We recognized there would be some concerns,” he said, adding that all of the meetings were cordial.

a00_jd_13jul_grad2nu_NEWThose groups realized that “we’re not doing this to be more exclusive, or improve the brand,” Howard said. “The real motivation is that we think, by doing this, we’ll help students be more successful. We want to be more inclusive, not exclusive.”

At UNM, a public outcry ensued when then-President Louis Caldera proposed raising standards in 2005.

The issue was shot down amid arguments that minority students would be disproportionately affected. The next year, UNM paid Caldera more than $700,000 to resign – 18 months before his contract was up.

His successor, David Schmidly, was able to get approval for a gradual increase in the minimum GPA – from 2.25 to 2.3 in 2011, then to 2.4 in 2012 and, most recently, to 2.5 in 2013. UNM also added a required college preparatory class each of those years, increasing required credit units from 13 to 16, according to Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management Terry Babbitt.

Babbitt said he believes NMSU is making a wise decision in raising its GPA standard. “The enhanced quality will put them in a better market position to attract students,” he said.

UNM President Bob Frank agreed. “When you’re harder to get into, then more kids apply,” he said. He added that, in general, a poor high school student will become a poor college student. And the best indicator of how a new student will fare in college is the GPA.

UNM is in no rush to change the GPA requirement, but Babbitt – with Frank’s endorsement – floated the idea to the regents last week and they, too, seemed receptive.

Frank insists that, before any definitive plan is presented to the regents, officials will meet with stakeholders and constituents. “We have no intention of imposing anything single-handedly,” he said. “We want to hear what the community thinks.”

Late Friday, Babbitt forwarded a list of benefits of higher admission standards. At the very top is “student success,” echoing NMSU’s Howard.

The list notes that students “who attend UNM and are not successful” might become mired in debt. He also noted that students who need more preparation can benefit from a two-year college.

A “holistic” approach to admissions, one that considers GPA, SAT or ACT scores, background, motivation and classes taken in high school, is what the university is striving for. Some students may be required to “early start” in the summer or previous spring semester. Flexibility is key.

Students may also need to take “gateway” classes at Central New Mexico Community College. Currently, many UNM freshmen are required to take remedial English or math courses. The difference between “gateway” and “remedial” classes is that the gateway students, because of low high school GPAs, are not automatically eligible for enrollment in UNM or CNM.

As for enrollment numbers, even just a few years ago, universities didn’t have to be much concerned; there were enough potential students knocking on the doors to fill vacancies.

No more.

For the first time in 20 years, the number of high school graduates nationwide is declining. In New Mexico, the number of graduates in the past year dipped below 19,000, although the number hasn’t changed much for several years. In the 2009-10 school year, for example, graduates numbered 19,465.

This year, the number dropped to 18,841. It is not expected to surpass 20,000 until the 2018-19 school year.

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which has been making accurate forecasts for more than 30 years, projects the end of “the era of annually increasing graduating classes.” The commission also notes that “graduating classes are rapidly becoming more diverse.”

According to its projections, New Mexico’s high school graduating classes will increase by a mere 1 percent annually for the coming decade and will reach a high of 22,300 before beginning to drop again.

The interstate commission said two barriers to student access and success in New Mexico are insufficient academic preparation and inadequate finances, even as projections indicate a growing demand for a well-educated workforce.

Both UNM and NMSU are working to solve those problems. They are forming closer ties with community colleges, local school districts, the business community and the state Public Education Department. They are also seeking ways to help students succeed in post-secondary education and to avoid becoming dropouts who are saddled with debt.