Rating transparency in 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 appears to result from a strategic plan to make it more difficult for the public and policymakers to make sound decisions.

Recently, the University of New Mexico released payroll data for the school online. We applaud this measure but note that just this April, when the Rio Grande Foundation requested the same information from UNM, we received a letter stating that the University “did not have this information in electronic format” and summarily declined our request. Most other institutes of higher ed were more responsive, but not all.

NMSU, ENMU, Highlands, WNMU, NMMI, CNM, and San Juan College all received top marks because, as proscribed by law, they had a clearly-noted point of contact on their websites for information requests and they complied within the allotted time.

Unfortunately, other schools did not have clear contacts made available and for some we were completely unable to track down points of contact and thus, received no information. Obviously, this is unacceptable.

Sadly, posting payroll data online is just an indicator of bigger issues within higher education in New Mexico. Information is essential in allocating scarce resources. This is the power of the free market. We obviously don’t have that in higher education, so we need to ask other questions to better understand the goals of higher education in the state, such as:

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?

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. Is it wise for taxpayers to pick up a disproportionate percentage of the costs of higher education when the benefits largely accrue to those who actually receive the educations?

New Mexico has 65 higher education campuses spread over 16 schools. Do we really need that many or should relatively more money be allocated to attracting and retaining the most effective teachers?

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.