New Mexico’s total higher education budget could increase 9 percent next year, as colleges and universities are still trying to overcome deep revenue cuts they sustained during the recession.

The Higher Education Department is requesting $946.2 million for fiscal year 2021, compared with its $867.1 million budget for the current period. That includes a 6 percent increase in “instruction and general” funding, which is the main appropriation colleges and universities use for their operations.

The request comes as the state’s higher education institutions have endured heavy cuts over the past decade, including a reduction in per-student funding of more than 30 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.

While the Legislature did pass an increase earlier this year, Higher Education Secretary Kate O’Neill said there is more work to do to recover.

“During the most recent economic downturn, enrollments surged and budgets plummeted,” O’Neill said. “Enrollments have since stabilized at about 125,000 students, but revenues have not yet returned to the levels needed to support higher education throughout the state.”

In particular, O’Neill noted that while higher education appropriations represented 15.5 percent of the state budget in 2010, they only account for 12.2 percent in the current fiscal year.

Even if the request for fiscal year 2021 is granted, higher education’s proportion will only rise to 12.6 percent of the estimated total budget, she said.

“These institutions need state dollars to provide the services New Mexicans need,” O’Neill said.

The higher education request includes $35 million for Lujan Grisham’s scholarship expansion proposal, known as the Opportunity Scholarship, which would help eliminate tuition and fees for New Mexicans attending public community colleges and universities.

That request is at the upper end of the estimated cost of the program the administration gave when it was first announced in September, which was a range between $25 million and $35 million.

State officials settled on that requested amount, O’Neill said, because they anticipate the program will lead to increases in enrollment.

The department also said there was an effort to keep the requested higher education hike in the single digits, given the administration’s goal of keeping the overall increase in the state’s budget under 10 percent.

The scholarship proposal, as well as an overall higher education budget request, needs legislative approval and is expected to be considered in the January session.

Earlier this year, New Mexico Independent Community Colleges, the four-year state universities and their branch colleges sent a joint letter to O’Neill asking for an overall higher education budget increase of 8 percent, according to Santa Fe Community College President Becky Rowley.

The colleges also asked for an increase in compensation for all employees of 5 percent, as well as $50 million for technology upgrades, Rowley said.

“When the state was having budget issues a few years ago, higher ed was one of the first places that got cut,” she said.

The community college said the cuts over the years have affected its ability to bring on more staff and implement certain programs in student services, admissions and financial aid that could particularly help first-generation students.

“We want to make sure that we provide those services to students so they’ll be successful,” Rowley said.

Santa Fe Community College’s budget fell from $10.4 million in fiscal year 2016 to $9.6 million in 2018, according to Rowley.

While the budget rose to $10.7 million this year, the new overall budget request would be key in helping the college cover inflationary costs, such as utilities and insurance, said Nick Telles, vice president of finance.

The requested increase would “take us closer to where we were several years ago,” Rowley added.

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Jens Gould covers politics for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Mexico City, a regular contributor for TIME in California, and produced the video series Bravery Tapes.

(1) comment

Chris Mechels

Throwing money without a plan, which seems to be the MLG style. The Opportunity Scholarships are silly, just more PR from MLG. More useful would be to make the Lottery Scholarships "needs based" like most states do. We are giving those scholarships to many students who don't "need" them. But, that would take political courage, which is lacking the the PR land of MLG.

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