UNM among top 10 fastest-growing state flagships

The University of New Mexico’s main campus in Albuquerque. Russell Contreras/The Associated Press

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 rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

(6) comments

Suzanne Prescott

I like targets too but I also like to see the reasons that targets aren't being met are getting addressed. Students here have problems that aren't as prevalent in more affluent states. In 10 years of teaching at CNM and 30 years at a public university I've had students with many other commitments (e.g. being a full-time care giver,) health or transportation issues, grinding and exhausting full-time jobs, or no job and no money.
This is not an easy mix to fix for our legislators, but we should be voting to replace the ones that are not willing to work on addressing the reasons so many students are under resourced and need more time to complete their educational goals.

Andrew Lucero

This should come as a surprise to no one... For decades, the academic integrity of our schools has been compromised. Government interference, Unions and Administrators have lowered the basic scholastic standards to such a degree, that today we are handing out high school diplomas to kids who are literally the equivalent of high school freshmen or sophomores. The main reason these kids have to spend the first 2 or 3 years of their college lives taking remedial classes is because they didn't learn the material in high school...

The sad truth is, why waste your time with the public schools? If you are going to end up paying for your kid to repeat their junior and senior years of high school anyway, then you might as well send your kid to St. Mike's or one of the other private schools where they can get the material down the first time. They would at least have the advantage when entering college of most likely being one of the 14% who graduates on time.

Rod Lievano

There are many reasons for not completing "on time." One is that the 4-year norm is arbitrary, yet is given undue concern. Others are finances, family obligations, major, planning, scheduling, degree of preparation, and other options.

So concerns of NM "falling behind" on degrees are misguided. I would rather see someone finish a degree at some time than see someone abandon the pursuit due to constraints.

Scott Smart

Graduating on time stats are not surprising given some 60% of NM high school graduates require remedial courses upon enrolling in college.

Jerry Appel

These numbers are hardly startling. Under the best of circumstances one in three college students graduate on time from public universities. This is normal. In New Mexico it should be lower because of the lottery system. Our society has sold college as a cure all to provide better jobs to high school graduates, so these young people are going to college in a state that pays for them to go, ready or not. When I first entered college it was free if your grades and SAT scores were good enough and there were 17,000 freshman on a campus with a total population of 35,000 students. The next year all requirements were dropped. There was an explosion in remedial classes and dropouts. The hurdle to getting a free college education in New Mexico must be set higher if you are concerned about dropouts and finishing on time. After all, we are talking about people, not farm animals or machines.

Mike Johnson

Just another list we are last on, and have been for a long time.

Welcome to the discussion.

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