New Mexico colleges have increased the number of associate and bachelor’s degrees they’ve awarded by some 15 percent over the past few years, but the state remains stuck at the bottom nationally when it comes to students completing those degrees on time.
As the state Higher Education Department focuses this school year on new efforts to improve the college graduation rate, a report released Monday to the Legislative Finance Committee says New Mexico ranks 49th in the country, with only 14 percent of students in the state earning a bachelor’s degree within four years. Another 41 percent graduate within six years.
The number of associate degrees earned over the past four years, however, is outpacing bachelor’s degrees by more than 2o percent.
The college graduation delay could impact the state’s economy, the report says, in part by leaving jobs unfilled: “New Mexico is likely to fall short of having the educated workforce necessary to fill these openings let alone expand economically.”
Taking additional time to complete a university degree also can lead to more student debt.
“New Mexico is falling behind [the nation] in bachelor’s degrees,” said Charles Sallee, deputy director of the Legislative Finance Committee.
Among the challenges impeding the graduation rate: high-schoolers who are unprepared for college and have to take remedial courses, problems transferring credits for students changing majors or schools within the state and a lack of options known as meta-majors.
A meta-major is a new trend in higher education in which students can choose to pursue a broad field of study, such as science, math or engineering — rather than a more specific major — and still be assured that all credits will count toward a degree.
One lawmaker Monday pointed out another challenge: the rising cost of college tuition, which forces many students to take on jobs. This, in turn, limits the course load students can take on each semester.
Sallee said the state has to do a better job of setting standards for its higher-education institutes and measuring their performance when it comes to awarding degrees.
But Barbara Damron, secretary of the New Mexico Higher Education Department, told the committee the department recently set long-term goals to increase college graduation rates. Those goals, initiated this semester, include developing more meta-major programs, providing financial grants to colleges that increase their four-year graduation rates and decreasing the number of hours required for both associate and bachelor’s degrees in the state.
“I understand the need for targets,” Damron told the committee.
Sallee also recommended capping bachelor’s degrees at 120 credit hours. Sallee said degrees that require more credits slow students down and add to debt.
Some state lawmakers expressed concern at that idea, arguing that many jobs require extra training and credits.
“Basically, we’re watering down the degree and decreasing the meaning of a degree,” said Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho.
But Sallee said 120 hours is the national standard and that exceptions could be made for fields requiring more study.
Harper said some students should not be pushed to earn a degree on time because they may not have decided on a major or may be holding down one or more jobs to pay for college — which makes tackling a full-time load difficult.
“That’s going to take more time to get a degree,” he said.
Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or firstname.lastname@example.org.