Reality Roundup for New Mexico Higher Ed


There have been several news accounts lately on government-run higher education in New Mexico. Let’s sort it all out.

The Albuquerque Journal reported that UNM awarded 5,674 degrees last academic year — a record. But consider these caveats: The four-year completion rate “was on track to exceed 20 percent for the first time in years,” and the school “trimmed the number of credit hours required to earn most bachelor degrees from 128 to 120.” And don’t forget that with the state’s economy stuck in neutral, many of the newly degreed will will be seeking employment beyond New Mexico’s borders. (The state has never shown any interest in tracking how many of its subsidized college grads remain in the Land of Enchantment.)

In an interview with the Santa Fe New Mexican, Rep. Jimmie Hall (R-Albuquerque), the vice chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, had some sobering words for higher education’s administrators: “I will be very blunt. Everybody who has talked to me — constituents, lobbyists, legislators and staff — has said, ‘Take it out of higher ed.'” The lawmaker was referring to how best to deal with the state’s severe budget crisis.

Austerity, to some degree, is already in place. In the current fiscal year, $828.5 million in “recurring general fund revenues” were appropriated to the Higher Education Department — a 2.4 percent cut from the previous fiscal year. More is likely on the way. But the system’s supporters should consider the words of ENMU President Steven Gamble, who admitted last week that his school “got through a 21 percent budget cut several years ago.”

As the Foundation has recommended, campus sprawl offers a prime opportunity to reduce costs. While we’re not often in agreement with the New Mexican’s editorial page, today it noted that the state’s “colleges and universities have grown in too haphazard a manner, with little thought to preventing duplication, stopping vanity growth or focusing on needs rather than wants.” The paper offered some stinging examples of the sprawl problem: “Did The University of New Mexico need a westside campus, just a 40-minute drive from the main UNM campus in Albuquerque? Or how about New Mexico Highlands University? It has seven branches — Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, Española, Farmingon, Raton and Roswell. There are branches upon branches, with the growth akin to the adobe houses built one room at a time, with a lack of central planning.”

Higher education has long been a sacred cow at the legislature — shielded from accountability, and regularly infused with new wads of cash. The dropout and remedial-training issues have been ignored, and few have been willing to question policies that essentially subsidize the quality of other states’ workforces. But staring down a river of red ink, lawmakers might finally be willing to subject the state’s universities and colleges to an overdue right-sizing. Taxpayers would be grateful.