New Mexico State University might set up a campus in old Mexico. Sort of.
Legislators this month approved a bill that would allow the university to sign an agreement to open a campus in San Luis Potosí. It would be built and operated by a group of private investors.
Tuition at the Mexico campus would be 15 percent higher than NMSU’s rate at its main campus in Las Cruces. In turn, the university would get a 12 percent cut of the gross revenue.
And, university officials say, it would reach a market in Mexico that is eager for diplomas from American universities while gaining a toehold for the state’s economic development efforts deep in a country that is a central trading partner.
“With the name of the university goes the name of the state,” said Rolando Flores, dean of NMSU’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
Sponsored by Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, Senate Bill 314 won broad support in both chambers of the Legislature.
But it also raised a few concerns.
“What this sounds like to me is NMSU is engaging in branding of a for-profit university,” Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, said before voting against the measure. “… I got to say, that troubles me.”
The concept has been percolating for more than a year. The New Mexico State University Board of Regents approved an agreement in 2018 to pursue negotiations with investors.
And while a deal to open the campus has not been finalized, the university — in keeping with a statute that says lawmakers must authorize any new branch campuses — asked for the Legislature’s approval to proceed with negotiations.
The university has said it will not spend any state funds on the campus, however.
Rather, the campus would be part of a real estate development south of Gran Peñón, a city of more than 800,000 people in central Mexico.
Flores said the employees would not be NMSU personnel, either.
Instead, NMSU would have oversight of the campus’ academic programs and approve faculty as well as course offerings.
Faculty would teach classes only in English, Flores said, and he expected the campus would start with 1,500 to 2,000 students.
The campus would initially offer classes in engineering technology and move to other areas like psychology, business and agriculture, he said.
There is debate among policymakers over whether the state’s public universities already have too many branch campuses.
Flores, however, argues Mexico is a market ripe for education from American universities.
“In Latin America, the only way that people see to move up on the ladder is with a university degree. Period,” Flores said. “What is the advantage of a university degree from the U.S.? Gigantic. It implies two things: first, that the person speaks English and, second, that the education is higher quality.”
State government already has a trade office in Mexico City that recruits students for University of New Mexico degree programs and develops study abroad initiatives.
NMSU officials said the concept for the proposed arrangement came from officials at Arkansas State University, which joined with a private group to build a campus in Querétaro, Mexico.
Partnering with private groups to establish a campus abroad is becoming more common for American universities, said Jason Lane, part of the Cross-Border Education Research Team, which studies transnational educational.
But the practice raises several policy issues. Lane said maintaining academic oversight and accreditation is critical.
“One situation that we’ve seen is that if enrollment targets are not being met, there can be pressure from the investors to reduce standards,” Lane said. “So it’s important to make sure there are firewalls in place to protect the academic integrity of the institution.”
There is also the question of what would happen to students if the venture failed. NMSU officials have said the university would take on responsibility for teaching students in such an instance.
The prospective site of the new branch campus has been the subject of controversy, too.
The Mexican broadcaster Global Media reported that government officials fined Gran Peñón’s developers in 2015 for environmental violations. And critics have questioned the sustainability of building on the side of the mountains overlooking San Luis Potosí.
Justin Bannister, NMSU’s associate vice president for marketing and communications, said the project is still in its early stages.
“We will evaluate all aspects of the project to minimize any impact before we contemplate a decision to proceed,” he said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has until April 5 to sign or veto legislation approved by the Legislature.