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Lawmakers: Too Many N.M. Colleges

By James Monteleone
Journal Staff Writer
          SANTA FE — Lawmakers on Friday blasted the growth of community colleges and branch campuses in the state and threatened to shut some of them down to save money.
        "We're going to have to be looking at closing some campuses," said Legislative Finance Committee vice chairman Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming.
        The committee met in Santa Fe to talk about ways to cut spending on higher education.
        But lawmakers focused their funding concerns on the 25-plus colleges in the state. Many of them have duplicate programs in the same communities, leading to higher overhead expenses.
        One example mentioned was social work courses that are taught in Albuquerque at a New Mexico State University center and at a New Mexico Highlands University campus located less than a half-mile apart near Indian School and San Mateo.
        A couple other examples, according to the schools' websites:
        • In the Rio Rancho area, students are able to earn a degree in education from Highlands or the new University of New Mexico West. In addition, basic college courses are offered at both Central New Mexico Community College Rio Rancho and the Bernalillo branch of the UNM-Los Alamos campus.
        • In Farmington, four-year degrees are available in elementary education and business administration from either Highlands or a UNM field office.
        When asked how many university branch campuses are in New Mexico, Higher Education Department Secretary Viola Florez did not have an immediate answer for committee members.
        New Mexico is spending $853 million this year on higher education, about 15 percent of the state's annual budget. More tax dollars per capita are paid to colleges in New Mexico than in any other state in the country, according to an audit by the LFC, a bipartisan committee of state representatives and senators that manages the state budget.
        Florez said the branch campuses and community colleges are important because they provide access to higher education regardless of where students live and create economic opportunities in small communities where schools are established.
        But state revenues have continued to decline, and the state will have to change the way it supports dozens of colleges and universities, many of which were established by local governments and transferred to the state to fund, Smith said.
        "If these institutions are near and dear to the community, let them step to the plate financially, because we no longer have the capacity to carry the full load," he said.
        The duplicate courses are too expensive and risk diluting the state's best academic programs, he said.
        Other lawmakers accused state colleges of being more interested in expanding and competing for state money than in identifying cost-effective ways to educate students.
        "I think, in many respects, we're gaming the system to chase dollars," said Rep. Donald Bratton, R-Hobbs.
        The Legislature in 1998 passed a law to prohibit creation of new community colleges, branches or off-campus learning centers without specific legislative approval.
        Curtis Porter, a UNM associate vice president, said that law is interpreted as preventing new schools but allowing established colleges and universities to develop new programs and campuses to accommodate students.
        Sen. Carroll Leavell, R-Jal, said he did not agree with that interpretation and said the law should be revisited during the upcoming legislative session.
        Responding to the criticism, members of the LFC's Higher Education Funding Task Force said they would review the redundancies in higher education before a December committee meeting.
        New Mexico colleges need to do more to find budget savings for the state, said Rep. Henry "Kiki" Saavedra, D-Albuquerque.
        "We need them to come with suggestions of how we can save some money, rather than come tell us how great they are," Saavedra said.

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