State colleges urged to reduce required degree credits, speed up graduation

The state’s economy relies in part on college students graduating quickly and getting into the workforce, and Gov. Susana Martinez wants every college and university in New Mexico to redesign degree programs and offer tuition incentives to that end.

Among the points she made Monday morning during a speech at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, Martinez said she wants the number of credit hours for the state’s programs to be set at 120 credit hours.

Currently, a little more than 30 percent of programs fit that bill, but she wants to see more than 50 percent of programs reach that mark by next fall.

The governor also called for colleges to offer tuition incentives for students to take 15 credit hours per semester and to adopt other practices to encourage students to graduate in four years.

“The future of our economy actually depends on them getting into the workforce much quicker and very prepared,” she told an audience of university administrators. “We’ll work together to find ways to do it without endangering accreditation or compromising on the quality of our degrees.”

The Legislature passed a budget for the coming fiscal year that reduces spending for the state’s higher learning institutions by nearly $20 million. It is the first time since fiscal year 2012 that the state’s higher education institutions have seen a decrease in state funding.

UNM lost about $8 million, and the university has raised tuition and cut vacant positions among other measures to address the shortfall.

Some other state schools also have raised tuition. New Mexico Highlands in Las Vegas boosted it by 12.5 percent, or about $300 per semester, pushing the new total for full-time New Mexico undergraduates to about $2,700 a semester next fall.

The New Mexico State University Board of Regents voted against raising tuition, and now the school in Las Cruces is facing about a $10 million shortfall. NMSU regents will meet Friday to discuss the budget.

Joseph Cueto, a spokesman for the state Higher Education Department, said the reforms “will reduce costs and save money not only for our students and families, but for our colleges and universities as well.”

In 2016-17, about 73 percent of UNM programs will be at 120 credit hours, and about 87 percent will have cut their programs from 128 credit hours. UNM also waives the final semester’s tuition for students who graduate within four years.

In 2015, UNM’s most recent four-year graduation rate was roughly 20 percent and about 50 percent for six-year graduates. That’s up from 15 percent for the four-year rate and about 45 percent for the six-year rate in 2011.

According to a Legislative Finance Committee report released in December 2015, New Mexico’s fiscal 2013 graduation rates of 14 percent for four-year graduation and 41 percent for six-year graduation ranked 49th and 47th in the nation, respectively.

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