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Governor wants to improve higher education

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Gov. Susana Martinez said Wednesday that New Mexico needs to do a better job of preparing students for college and then having them graduate in four years.

In a keynote address before her own summit on higher education, the governor told several hundred educators, business leaders and others from across the state that higher education is vital for creating a more diverse economy in the state. But data show New Mexico lags far behind in graduation rates and the large number of students who enter college unprepared.

Fewer than 14 percent of the state’s students graduate college in four years, and at UNM 47 percent graduate in six years. The national average is for 69 percent to graduate in six years.

“A well-paying job is a path out of despair,” Martinez said in her speech at the University of New Mexico. “Education provides people with the tools they need to create jobs for themselves and others. We need to create knowledge at our higher education institutions, but let us also realize that higher education plays a critical role in creating a workforce. We need students who are trained to think and to work.”

In addition to the governor’s comments, those attending heard from David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, and Bruce Vandal, senior vice president of Complete College America.

Longanecker stressed that money is not the issue. The amount New Mexico spends on higher education is about average, and the percent of its budget – 12 percent – is double the average percent spent by other states, he said.

Basically, he said, New Mexico needs to get more productivity for what it’s spending.

And Vandal insisted there are proven strategies other schools have used that have led to significant improvements.

The governor cited several of those strategies as ways to move New Mexico forward.

Among the broader goals, she said, is to form a cohesive higher education system that works effectively to graduate students in four years and makes sure it is doing its part to see that students are academically fit when they are ready to enter college.

Fifty-three percent of New Mexico students entering community college had to take remedial classes in English and math, Martinez said.

“Twenty million dollars a year is spent to teach students in college what they were supposed to learn in high school,” the governor said.

She also pointed out that it costs nearly twice as much for a student who takes six years to graduate versus a student who takes four years to graduate.

The strategies she outlined included:

  • Reducing most degree requirements to 120 credit hours at state colleges and universities. Martinez said several institutions are heading in that direction, but only 32 percent of the degree programs in the state are at 120 hours. “We have a long way to go.”
  • Encouraging and providing incentives for students to take a 15-hour load each semester. Any fewer and it’s impossible for a student to graduate in four years.
  • Creating pathways that encourage students to select a field of study earlier and shows them exactly what courses they need to take to finish.
  • Monitoring student progress so they would automatically get help from an adviser to keep on track.
  • A common curriculum among state institutions that would permit the transfer of credits.
  • More early-college high schools that enable students to graduate with college credits or training for a career.
  • Tuition incentives that reward students for graduating in four years.

Martinez also said the state needs to raise the standards for students entering the state’s schools of education.

“We have many wonderful public school teachers, but if we are to be honest, many are struggling and need help,” she said. “We must remember that these teachers were products of our schools of higher education, that higher education has a role to play in improving our public schools.”

Martinez said the state also has been selected for participation in a national program that provides a model for remediation. A particularly effective approach of the Complete College of America program integrates remedial students into a regular college class and then provides the remedial student with additional support and class time.

Martinez said one reason it takes longer than it should for students to graduate college is a failure on their part to choose a course of study early on.

“A little exploration in college is a good thing,” she said. “A lot of wandering is not. It drives up the cost for everyone involved. Most incoming freshmen generally know their preferences – math or literature. We need to help them more efficiently settle into their discipline of choice.”

The governor said selecting what is known as a meta major – a general field of study such as the social sciences – would help freshmen focus sooner on classes they need to earn a degree.

The governor said high schools across the state that have early college classes are amazing.

“Students can leave high school with an associate’s degree or a work certificate,” she said. “They have a head start on their college education or can be ready to enter the workforce. ”

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