More information needed on higher education

Higher education has been a hot topic both nationally and in New Mexico recently. Congress has been haggling over the interest rates charged on federal student loans while economists question the economic impact of deeply-indebted college graduates. Here in New Mexico, UNM faculty complains that their salaries are not competitive with other, similar schools.

Unfortunately, decisions are being made and policy reforms are being discussed based on inadequate information. Sometimes, this lack of information seems to result from a strategic plan to make it more difficult for the public and policymakers to make sound decisions.

Take something as simple as faculty salaries at UNM. When we requested payroll information from all public colleges and universities in the state, UNM dubiously claimed that they do not keep their employees’ salary information electronically and directed us to the UNM salary book at Zimmerman Library. No other school made such a bizarre assertion.

Of course, by not publishing salary data online, UNM makes it far more difficult for the public and policymakers to actually find out for themselves whether UNM salaries are too low, too high, or just right. (this situation changed between the submission of this article and its publication. UNM’s transparency site can be found here)

Then there is the plethora of campuses in New Mexico’s system of institutes of higher education – 65 in all spread out over 17 institutions. Doña Ana Community College alone has a staggering nine campuses throughout southern New Mexico. New Mexico Highlands, based in Las Vegas, has a total of eight campuses spread from Farmington to Roswell.

What we have here is difficulty in allocating scarce resources that are supposed to benefit both the most talented and academically-inclined students graduating from high school and act as an engine for New Mexico’s economy. The information problem varies from being a lack of basic transparency to the fundamental difficulty of determining whether each of these campuses is necessary or whether higher faculty salaries are a logical investment.

Or, perhaps resources should be diverted away from higher education entirely? A report from National Information Center for Higher Education Policymaking notes that New Mexico students pay the 2nd lowest combined tuition and fees of any state in the nation while taxpayers in our state bear the 2nd-highest burden for higher education expenses as a percentage of personal income of any state in the nation.

Clearly, the resources are being allocated to make New Mexico’s higher education system flourish, but it would appear that too much money is being diverted into funding campuses and, (perhaps), not enough is being allocated to attracting and retaining the most effective teachers. Of course, adequate transparency would assist in making those decisions.

Universities (like the public schools) must get away from the mentality that they must be all things to all people and that all of those pursuits must be treated the same.

For example, should students in a 300-person lecture pay the same rate per credit hour as someone in a 10 person lab? What about offering some of those large lectures in an online environment (especially given our campus bloat)? Should policymakers allocate greater resources to “in-demand” STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) that generate high salaries and form the basis for New Mexico’s economy?

Finally, can individual schools (like the UNM law school, for example) be given greater budgetary autonomy and incentives to innovate by operating as independent institutions, free of taxpayer subsidies, as opposed to one component of a university?

The fact is that higher education needs to evolve and become more efficient and more transparent. The question is whether policymakers will be forced to blindly cut in the next budget crisis or whether the leadership both of the individual schools and in Santa Fe will act now to provide needed information and make changes now.

Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.