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Can New Mexico universities still recruit Mexican students?

Just a few months ago, Mexico looked like a great hope for New Mexico’s top research universities: a country with a growing middle class ripe for recruiting ambitious students to help slow falling enrollment and raise revenue.

That hope has dimmed, due to the domino effects of discord between Washington, D.C., and Mexico City over who will pay for President Trump’s promised border wall. The impacts are both real and perceived in Mexico and could damage efforts by the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University to attract students to the state.

Both universities recently launched discounted tuition programs for Mexican students, with rates about 50 percent higher than in-state tuition but significantly less than what out-of-state students pay. Before recent developments, including Trump’s hard line on Mexico and the decline in the peso, NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers said he saw fertile ground south of the border to increase student enrollment.

“We believe we are in the sweet spot because we are so close to Mexico,” Carruthers told the Journal last summer. “So many of our people are bilingual that this is going to be a great market for graduate students going forward.”

But now the directors of UNM’s Global Education Office and NMSU’s International and Border Programs say they are concerned about how the current presidential administration is going to affect their recruitment in Mexico.

a00_jd_26feb_nm-students_mexico“We have really made a lot of headway in partnering and connecting with governmental and higher education institutions” in Mexico, said Nicole Tami, UNM director of global education initiatives. “All of that happened with a great level of energy, and then these political and economic changes happened, and it would be naive to assume it’s not going to have an impact. But it’s important to continue the engagement with Mexico.

“It’s going to be engagement and soft diplomacy that are going to remind us about the importance that U.S.-Mexico relations have,” she said.

In the first week of his presidency, Trump signed an executive order authorizing construction of a wall at the Mexican border – and repeated his plans to force Mexico to pay for it. That rhetoric prompted Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto to publicly declare, again, that his country would do no such thing.

The row resulted in the cancellation of a meeting between the two leaders that has not been rescheduled.

“The result of the new administration’s comments about Mexico, in addition to being disheartening, it made the peso plummet,” said Cornell Menking, associate provost for international programs at NMSU. “All the mood and attitude stuff aside, the price tag is affected. That will affect people’s ability to come and even pay the discounted rate.”

The Mexican peso has been on a downward spiral for two years, losing more than a third of its value.

Last year, sharp drops often corresponded inversely with Trump’s rise in the polls, according to economists. The currency hit a record low of 22 pesos to the dollar in the days leading up to the inauguration.

That means Mexicans’ take-home pay doesn’t go as far in the U.S., and it has led even middle-class Mexicans to scale back cross-border shopping trips and meals out.

NMSU recruiter Jorge Ramos says that for a subset of wealthier Mexicans, the universities can still make the pitch that their discounted tuition is a comparative bargain. He has been visiting high schools from Ciudad Juárez to Mexico City and has heard from students firsthand.

“We’ve been getting a lot of interest from the students to come here,” he said. “Having the new program with the lower tuition, that makes it very competitive versus private Mexican institutions” and more expensive public and private institutions in the United States.

Whether the souring bilateral relationship has affected Mexican students’ willingness to come to the U.S. may depend on where they’re from in Mexico.

People from northern states tend to see themselves as part of a border region that includes the U.S., Ramos said. Students farther south may be more turned off by the harsh words about Mexico and Mexicans that Trump has often used.

“The last three months, it’s been like, ‘Your president is saying some awkward things, but still I’m going to go to college.’ But that’s at the border; it’s people who are used to coming to the States. They don’t feel so foreign.”

UNM and NMSU – with 45 and 142 Mexican students on campus, respectively – are behind the curve recruiting south of the border compared with some peer institutions in border states.

For example: University of Texas at El Paso – just 45 miles east of Las Cruces – enrolled more than 1,100 students from Mexico in fall 2016, including 239 graduate students. UTEP has the advantage of being commuter distance for students in nearby Ciudad Juárez.

“We will continue to work in Mexico,” Tami said. “We will continue to send and receive students. In many ways, it is an unprecedented time of angst and uncertainty. But there is a lot of opportunity here.”

While the relationship between the two countries “might be strained or challenged,” she said, “even those with a moderate position know we can’t afford to alienate Mexico. There are too many reasons to remain engaged.”

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Lauren Villagran at