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Editorial: Gov. prods higher ed to push harder to improve

Gov. Susana Martinez came to her higher education summit armed with specific strategies, not vague platitudes.

The problem, as she outlined it Wednesday, is New Mexico has a dismal record when it comes to (1) preparing high school students for college and (2) having college students graduate within four years.

Those facts are costly in a poor state. “Twenty million dollars a year is spent to teach students in college what they were supposed to learn in high school,” she said in her keynote address. And it costs higher education nearly twice as much for a student who graduates in six years as a student who graduates in four.

There are also plenty of extra costs for students, who in many cases take out loans to finance their educations and are further delayed in getting to the workforce.

These deficiencies not only hurt students and their families, they also hamper efforts to diversify the state’s economy and produce skilled and educated workers who are attractive to employers and potential new employers who might locate here.

Here are the challenges:

  • Improve the four-year college graduation rate. Now, fewer than 14 percent of the state’s students graduate in four years. At the University of New Mexico, only 47 percent graduate in six years, compared to the national average of 69 percent.
  • Create a cohesive higher education system that helps more students graduate in four years and helps high school students be academically ready to enter college. Currently 53 percent of state students had to take remedial English and math when they entered the state’s community colleges, which is where, if anywhere, remediation should take place.

Among Martinez’s strategies for changing the higher ed playing field are encouraging more institutions to reduce most degree requirements to 120 credit hours (which UNM has done), providing incentives for taking a 15-hour load each semester (now a lottery scholarship requirement as well as UNM and NMSU policy) and for graduating in four years (another UNM and NMSU reform), encouraging students to select a field of study earlier instead of casually sampling courses, monitoring students’ progress to keep them on track and creating a common curriculum so credits can be transferred among state institutions.

And, importantly, raising the standards for students entering the state’s schools of education. Doing so could mean better prepared K-12 teachers who can help raise the high school preparedness bar so college students can hit the academic ground running instead of playing catch up.

Giving credit where it is due, some of our colleges and universities have made significant progress in the last five years. But the governor is correct that New Mexico needs to make greater strides in higher education, and those reforms should reach into the secondary and even primary grades. New Mexico’s students and communities deserve the better opportunities that come from education when it’s done well.

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.

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