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Editorial: Parochialism shouldn’t derail NM higher ed study

To the numerous New Mexico communities hosting small, public colleges and universities, “consolidation” might as well be a four-letter word.

Those campuses bring not only students, but decent-paying jobs, infrastructure, an economic boost and the cachet of being a “college town.” So any talk of consolidation, streamlining or anything else that even hints at a potential loss of revenue or autonomy at those campuses inevitably triggers a strong political backlash. Perhaps that’s why New Mexico, with a population of just over 2 million, now has 31 college campuses and numerous offshoot facilities.

Still, with declining enrollments, rising costs and a sluggish state economy that is causing multimillion-dollar budget deficits, state officials can no longer defer to tender higher education ears that don’t want to hear about the streamlining concept in any four-letter combination, be it “blend” or “fuse” or “pool” or “meld.”

First, because the state has a budget to balance every year, and every year it gets harder. State colleges and universities are again facing budget cuts as a smaller pie is expected to feed the same number of mouths.

And second, because offering quantity over quality means New Mexicans get less bang for their higher ed buck.

Between the 2011 fall semester and the 2015 fall semester, enrollment in the state’s universities and colleges has fallen 11 percent overall, according to the higher ed department, and that trend is likely to continue despite recruitment efforts. Some universities have enrollments of a few thousand students, not much bigger than an Albuquerque high school.

Meanwhile, the state’s higher education appropriation rose from $716 million in fiscal 2012 to a high of $843 million in fiscal 2016. That number dropped sharply in 2017 to $787 million, or about a 6.6 percent decrease from the peak, but is still significantly higher than 2012 levels.

The Legislative Finance Committee noted in its 2018 state budget recommendations that “with fewer students and declining revenue, the current number of access points for higher education may become more difficult to maintain.” Access points include universities, colleges, community colleges, tribal colleges, specialty schools and branches of branch colleges, also known as twigs.

Last year Jose Z. Garcia, a former New Mexico secretary for higher education, pointed out in an op-ed that while New Mexico spends $1,833 more per full-time college student than the national average – sixth-highest in the nation and a higher proportion of the budget than every state save Wyoming – we rank 47th in the six-year graduation rate for a Bachelor of Arts degree. A Legislative Finance Committee report from 2015 puts the state’s six-year graduation rate at 41 percent, meaning six out of 10 students likely got debt instead of a degree. UNM’s four-year graduation rate was roughly 20 percent; it’s six-year rate was about 50 percent.

It all underlines a point made by Chaouki Abdallah, acting president at the University of New Mexico. He says unabashedly that the state’s current system is unsustainable. He’s not alone in that assertion. He also acknowledges that any changes to the higher education system as a whole could probably disrupt local economies in the short term, though they would be beneficial to the state in the long run.

Barbara Damron, secretary of the state Department of Higher Education, offers a more nuanced characterization of the higher education system, saying it doesn’t have too many schools but “too many independent systems.”

Many of the state’s 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. And while the Higher Education Department has some oversight of the budgets of schools in the state and collects data on enrollment, retention and graduation rates, college and university boards hire their own presidents and make their own spending and policy decisions.

For now, Damron says her department is working for “commonality” among the colleges and universities, such as ensuring all English 101 courses offered statewide have the same course number and content. That, in turn, would make credits among schools more easily transferable. Establishing such uniformities that support graduation should be a no-brainer.

And so should two legislative memorials calling for a review of the state’s higher education system: House Joint Memorial 12, sponsored by Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park; and Senate Joint Memorial 8, sponsored by Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales. If adopted, the memorials – which lack the force of law but are a formal expression of the Legislature’s desire – could provide some needed insight into changes in the higher ed system that would benefit New Mexico.

Those efforts should move forward, because not only is the current system unsustainable, but New Mexico students, university employees and taxpayers deserve one that delivers quality higher education across the board, and they need the data to get there.

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.