As New Mexico’s flagship university, The University of New Mexico has a responsibility to serve students, community and the entire state.

Often, this means taking a leadership role in the creation of innovative programs and initiatives that help us make progress toward our goals. For the past several years, UNM’s primary focus has been improving student success, and specifically, increasing our student graduation rates.

While UNM has the highest six-year graduation rate of any university in the state, we must still strive to do better to ensure that more UNM students graduate with a valuable degree, enter the workforce and contribute to our state’s economy.

One of the largest hurdles toward degree completion for many students is financial, and UNM is taking a leadership role in addressing this issue. While the cost of tuition is an issue that receives much attention, it is only one cost driver of a student’s college education. Another, which is just as significant, is the number of years it takes to earn a degree.

At UNM, a student who graduates in four years saves more than $10,000 in tuition compared to a student who graduates in six years. This fact alone underscores the importance of focusing students on a four-year degree track. Further, the quicker students graduate, the sooner they can enter the workforce to earn a salary and contribute to growing our economy.

Over the past three years, UNM has taken steps toward making four-year graduation a realistic option for students. We have reduced the minimum credit hour requirement to 120 hours and implemented planning and degree-mapping tools to help students choose their major quickly and stay on a four-year path. We have increased support for advisement and redoubled our efforts to ensure that we are offering the students the courses that they need to graduate.

UNM took another bold step in this direction, as newly appointed regent Rob Doughty introduced an innovative incentive plan designed to encourage four-year graduation. This new model ensures that beginning UNM freshmen will receive free tuition for their final semester if they graduate in four years, which could provide as much as $2,800 per student.

For four-year graduates with the Lottery Scholarship, this incentive will cover the unfunded portion of tuition in the final semester, ensuring that we maximize the benefit of this valuable state resource.

We are confident that this financial incentive will not only ease the cost to students and their families paying for college, but also provide the motivation for students to graduate quicker — in four years rather than five or six — thereby saving students and their families even more on the total cost of their UNM education.

With the addition of this graduation incentive, we believe that UNM now offers the most comprehensive package of financial support of any flagship university in the country. Starting with the Bridge and Success scholarships for incoming freshmen, complemented by the Lottery Scholarship and UNM financial aid packages, and ending with a free final semester for four-year graduates, UNM’s degree is a tremendous value.

In a time when the national dialogue surrounding higher education focuses on issues such as rising tuition costs and the level of student indebtedness, UNM is proud to be at the forefront of implementing solutions that will positively impact our students and their families. We are optimistic that once fully implemented, this graduation incentive will lead to increased recruitment opportunities and enrollment for UNM, increases in the number of students who graduate in four years, and significant financial savings to students and their families.

James “Jamie” Koch of Santa Fe is a member of The University of New Mexico Board of Regents.