Across roughly 121,600 square miles of mountains and desert, sprinkled with communities large and small, New Mexico has 31 colleges and universities for a population of about 2 million.
Many of these institutions and campuses are overseen by their own boards whose members are appointed by the governor or elected locally, and each has its own faculty and leadership to keep it running.
But this model is showing increasing signs of strain under the one-two punch of declining enrollment, which means less tuition money, and recent state budget cuts to higher education that have called into question how to manage the state’s schools.
So is this system viable for the long term?
“You want a one-word answer? No. But I don’t think it’s sustainable across the U.S.,” said Chaouki Abdallah, acting president of the University of New Mexico, when asked about the state’s current higher education model.
Abdallah, a longtime professor and administrator at UNM, has suggested that consolidating the state’s higher education system would probably be beneficial in the long term for the state, though in the short term it could disrupt local economies.
For their part, smaller schools say the individual boards give them autonomy to respond to their community’s specific needs. And they fear consolidation would affect their offerings.
Ed DesPlas, with San Juan Community College, said San Juan County, which is home to the northwestern city of Farmington, is taxed to help fund the college.
“We’re governed by a local board. I just don’t understand why the state would usurp the authority of local taxpayers,” DesPlas said of consolidation.
All of the schools are coping with budget cuts.
UNM has eliminated staff positions through attrition and slowed the hiring of new faculty members.
At New Mexico State University, Chancellor Garrey Carruthers has launched a sweeping administrative and academic reorganization that could mean fewer programs and jobs at the state’s second-largest university.
Smaller schools are feeling the pinch as well. Administrators at San Juan Community College say they have restricted travel, canceled employee cellphone plans and laid people off to balance their budget.
It’s not just colleges that are worried about the future. Two memorial bills currently in the state Legislature call for a review of the state’s higher education system.
House Joint Memorial 12, sponsored by Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, emerged from the House Education Committee last month with a “do pass” recommendation. It’s pending in the House.
Senate Joint Memorial 8, sponsored by Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, was approved 32-0 by the Senate last month and referred to the House Education Committee.
The Legislative Finance Committee, which makes budget recommendations, noted the state could improve in “collaboration among institutions.”
“With fewer students and declining revenue, the current number of access points for higher education may become more difficult to maintain,” reads the LFC’s 2018 budget recommendation.
Barbara Damron, secretary of the state Department of Higher Education, says it’s clear something will have to change, but she warned against “shooting from the hip” when making decisions about the future of higher education in the state.
Damron – a professor, health care provider and administrator who has worked at UNM – said she doesn’t want to subject any school to death by a thousand cuts. However, she also said the state’s colleges and universities might need to rethink their offerings.
Often, critics of New Mexico’s higher education system say the state has too many schools. She disagrees with that argument and said, if anything, there are “too many independent systems.”
“Does every institution need to be offering every major?” Damron asked.
Too many boards?
In some states, a single board oversees many colleges. For example, in Nevada one board oversees the state’s seven higher education institutes and one research institute.
But in New Mexico, each school has a separate board, which can make coordination among all entities a challenge.
The state’s Higher Education Department has some oversight of the budgets of schools in the state and collects data on enrollment, retention and graduation rates. But college and university boards make their own spending and policy decisions and select presidents to lead their individual schools.
Damron, who was appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez, said New Mexico has one of the most decentralized approaches to managing higher education in the nation. But she isn’t immediately calling for combining schools or culling governing boards.
Some of her department’s efforts are geared toward commonality among the colleges and universities.
Consider common course numbering, a program that aims to ensure that a beginning English class taken at Northern New Mexico College would carry the same weight at UNM.
She said that’s an improvement from a time when the schools didn’t talk.
“We’re getting big reforms done,” Damron said.
In recent years, schools have had to make cuts as enrollment fell. In fall 2011, 153,167 students were enrolled in the state’s universities and colleges. By fall 2015, that figure fell to 136,728, or about an 11 percent drop.
To complicate matters, the state’s budget has shrunk across the board. In the current fiscal year, lawmakers voted to reduce funding for higher education institutions by 5 percent. And though the state spends 13 percent of its general fund appropriation on higher education, leaders at the institutes say they’re running as lean as possible.
The higher education appropriation had risen from $716 million in the 2012 fiscal year to a high of $843 million in fiscal year 2016. That number dropped sharply in 2017 to $787 million, or about a 6.6 percent decrease from the peak but still significantly higher than 2012 levels.
In addition to state funding, tuition is a major source of revenue. But New Mexico is a poor state with many schools competing for students, and tuition remains lower here than in other states.
Small school autonomy
Smaller schools, both universities and colleges, say their size allows them autonomy and that consolidating supervisory oversight could hurt their offerings.
They also say New Mexico’s physical size and rural communities demand schools for students who otherwise wouldn’t, or couldn’t, travel to Albuquerque or Las Cruces for their higher education needs.
Stephen Wells, president of New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology since July 2016, said he has worked at university systems in California and Nevada. Despite the numerous colleges, he said, New Mexico institutions are the ones that work most closely together.
Wells, who also previously worked as a professor at UNM, said boards that oversee several schools have more demands on their attention and it can be difficult for smaller schools to get that attention.
That could be a challenge for his school, which specializes in science education and research. It’s also one of the smallest schools in the state with a student population of roughly 2,100 students in the rural town of Soccoro.
At New Mexico Tech, Wells said, he speaks with the school’s regents regularly. That would be more difficult, he said, with a board in charge of more schools.
Wells said the problem is compounded when the people overseeing the colleges are elected. And the state’s schools shouldn’t have to worry about competing with each other: “We should be all working together to compete against the rest of the nation.”
Robert Bailey, president of Northern New Mexico College since October 2016, said the school in Española serves a population that is traditionally underrepresented in higher education. The northern New Mexico city of about 10,000 struggles with poverty.
“Our community needs to know there’s a college dedicated specially to their needs,” said Bailey, a veteran of the Air Force and a professor and administrator at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Air University in Alabama.
Bailey said consolidation could limit those offerings.
Abdallah, UNM’s acting president, said the state’s institutions are struggling along with their national peers, and the state’s current system is unsustainable.
He said the cost of running a university has increased in recent years, partially thanks to new operating costs tied to ensuring compliance with federal regulations such as Title IX, a gender anti-discrimination law.
Abdallah said he understands the appeal of smaller schools tailored to different communities, and he doesn’t question their efficacy.
He also acknowledges that in the short term, consolidation would lead to economic hardship in many areas where small institutions are located.
“This is obvious as higher education institutions have both a direct effect (above-average-pay jobs) as well as a multiplier effect in the small communities,” he said.
However, “I’m questioning can you afford to have that if you’re trying to educate a large population?” Abdallah asked. “I don’t think it’s the right approach to educate a large number of people.”
In the long term, he believes consolidation would lead to better educational outcomes such as higher graduation rates as limited resources are better used and targeted.
Although he said New Mexico funds higher education generously, it doesn’t go as far as it could, given the number of schools.
NMSU’s Carruthers, a former governor of New Mexico, said a challenge in managing New Mexico’s higher education system is the state constitution, which dictates that, for example, one board of regents runs Western New Mexico University and another runs UNM. A change to the constitution would require approval from lawmakers and voters.
Carruthers said the state shouldn’t reorganize the schools system just for the sake of reorganizing.
“If it doesn’t save any money, why would you do it?” Carruthers said. “Would reorganization help us or would we just make people unhappy?”
If the higher education budget is again cut, that could mean more programs reduced and jobs lost, Damron said. And while there have been gains for the system – graduation rates are increasing and students incur less debt than the national average – it will be up to the state’s lawmakers and governor to determine what changes might be beneficial to the state and enact them.
“Are they going to be strong enough to say that’s what is best for the state?” Damron asked. “Only they can say that.”
Part Two: How the state’s second largest university is dealing with its budget cuts and declining enrollment.