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Northern President Speaks out at Higher Education Forum

    Northern New Mexico College President Richard Bailey wanted to remind his peers, during the July 19 Higher Education Forum, at the Albuquerque Publishing Co., that higher education should be accessible to all who seek it, regardless of where they live.

    Although not invited to sit on the panel with the presidents of the some of the state’s more visible higher education institutes, Bailey joined his colleagues, New Mexico State University Chancellor Garry Carruthers, University of New Mexico President Chaouki Abdallah, Western New Mexico College President Joseph Shepard and Central New Mexico Community College President Kathie Winograd, at the forum.

    The Albuquerque Journal, the New Mexico Council of University Presidents and KANW 89.1 hosted the event to discuss a variety of issues, such as declining enrollment, rising costs and a flailing Lottery Scholarship Fund, among other things.

    Organizers convened the forum about a week after Carruthers told a group of business leaders the state has too many public colleges and universities. The state has 31 publicly funded, and 182 private higher education institutions.

    Although Higher Education Department Secretary Barbara Damron said having so many public schools creates administrative challenges for her and her staff, intensive studies would have to be conducted to determine if the state has too many higher education institutions.

    “We don’t know the answer to that, as we sit here tonight,” she said. “We may have too many. We may not have too many. That needs to be studied thoroughly.”

    She said the state does a good job ensuring residents can access higher education. Students statewide can attend a four-year school or community college by attending any one of the 77 access points and/or branch campuses of the state’s 31 higher education institutions and independent community colleges.

    Damron said at the recession’s peak, the state saw increased enrollment to accommodate people who were transitioning to new careers, as a way to navigate the nationwide economic downturn.

    “Many times, when there is a recession, people go back to school,” she said. “So it is not uncommon to see enrollment increase during the recession, but we see those numbers go back down when the recession is over.”

    Her Department is working to see that 66 percent of the state’s working adults between the ages of 25 and 64, have post-secondary credentials by the year 2030, as part of the Route to 66 Initiative.

    Council of University Presidents Executive Director Marc Saavedra said getting students in the door these days isn’t as important as it was in the past, for a given school’s fiscal health. Like Damron, he said the focus has shifted to making sure the students finish their courses.

    “Funding is based on course completion,” he said. “You had institutions receiving money for students walking through the doors. If you go back 10 years, you will see we have 300 more students, but we are receiving $50 million less in state funding.”

    Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Doña Ana, Hildalgo, Luna and Sierra counties, said even though New Mexico funds higher education more generously than many other states, except Wyoming, the money is spread too thin. The state allocates about 13 percent of its total General Fund budget to higher education, which comes to anywhere between $750-$800 million annually.

    He said years ago, he objected to a measure that would have facilitated the opening of a four-year college in Rio Rancho because it would have led to (the higher education) pie being cut into even more pieces.

    Smith, who also serves as the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he and his colleagues should have began addressing the funding issue several years ago.

    “The bottom line is, we have cut that pie in so many pieces, it is difficult for us to do justice financially, to all the institutions in the state of New Mexico,” he said. “We are feeling the crunch and trying to make the adjustments.”

    Bailey, in his brief address to those in attendance, highlighted the importance of viewing education as a long-term investment for the community. He recalled the tale of a recent Northern grad who returned to school, after working a string of low-wage jobs and is now earning $85,000 per year.

    “The educational journey wasn’t just a return on an investment for that individual and that family,” he said. “It was a return on investment for the whole community because that individual is staying in the Española Valley.”

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