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Branches, ‘twigs’ have a higher education role

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Universities and community colleges in New Mexico have numerous branch campuses. But what about the branches of the branches?

There are more than a dozen so-called “twig” institutions around the state in which a branch campus has its own smaller branch in another community, according to an analysis by the Legislative Finance Committee.

Take Doña Ana Community College in Las Cruces, for example.

DACC, which belongs to the New Mexico State University system, has “learning centers” in the unincorporated community of Chaparral, the village of Hatch and the cities of Anthony and Sunland Park – four locations that are 30 minutes or more from the main DACC campus.

NMSU has its own outpost in Albuquerque. As does New Mexico Highlands University, which also has small locations in Rio Rancho and Farmington.

Those raise questions of whether the individual schools are cooperating or competing.

Meanwhile, Luna Community College in Las Vegas has campuses in Mora and Santa Rosa. Western New Mexico University in Silver City has four “learning centers” in Hidalgo, Deming, Truth or Consequences and Gallup. And so on.

“The learning centers are very different from a branch campus,” said WNMU President Joseph Shepard. “What the learning centers offer is that any university can offer classes at that location,” although he noted that other colleges aren’t currently using those facilities.

How cost-effective these satellite campuses are “is a complicated question,” according to Travis Dulany, a fiscal analyst for higher education with the Legislative Finance Committee. “Some of them are costing money, but some are bringing in money.”

Shepard noted that WNMU’s learning centers make some classes more cost-effective for the main campus by piping in instruction via interactive television so that 10 students in Silver City might be paired with another 10 students in Gallup taking the same course.

But public education is not a business, per se, and the cost-effectiveness of any system is often weighed against student access and performance.

Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron has criticized the decentralized governance structures of the state’s institutions while also praising their achievements in terms of access.

“We’re still a bricks and mortar industry,” she told an audience at NMSU’s Domenici Conference last fall. “We still have gazillions of square footage in our higher ed institutions. Much of that is important. Much of that needs to be there. Certain things can still best be taught in the classroom. Here in New Mexico … you can barely go 40 miles in our state without having access to higher education.”

There are new efforts to get diverse institutions to share their bricks and mortar.

Senate Bill 412, introduced this session by Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, would require higher education institutions “to share physical facilities wherever it is reasonably feasible to do so” and would grant the secretary of higher education authority to require institutions do so.

“Sharing of physical facilities is likely to result in reduced costs to higher education institutions, although the exact cost-savings is unknown at this time,” according to an LFC fiscal impact report on the bill.

The Senate Judiciary Committee gave it a “do pass” recommendation on Friday.

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