Commentary: Albuquerque, N.M. – A New Mexico public policy organization released this week its findings from an April town hall in which 200 New Mexicans deliberated challenges and solutions to the state’s higher education and workforce development systems.
New Mexico First wrote in its final report that “helping more New Mexicans complete some level of post-high school education is an urgently needed remedy to low wages” in a state that has one of the nation’s highest rates of poverty. Helping students get to the destinations of academic and career success, New Mexico First said, requires “smoothly paved pathways to better-paying employment that will encumber them with as little debt as possible.”
In the final report, the 12 town hall recommendations are grouped into three themes: student success before and during college; building the workforce of tomorrow; and improved governance of education and workforce systems.
“New Mexico college students must start strong and finish stronger,” the report reads, and town hall participants called for concrete reforms to help students make smart choices as they transition to higher education, such as:
- Improve the transition from high school to college. This includes providing adequate and sustainable resources to K-12 schools and community colleges to create rigorous, relevant, seamless advising, education and career pathways.
- Launch the college experience with a sound start, beginning from the day of enrollment.
- Tangibly support students through to completion, including financial aid, behavioral health and information about future opportunities.
BUILDING THE WORKFORCE OF TOMORROW
According to the report, the town hall called for wholescale improvements in workforce alignment across all career pathways, and participants proposed targeted reforms for the high-need and high-opportunity fields of energy, healthcare and K-12 education:
- Improve career-based education for students of all ages, including the number and quality of job-related opportunities.
- Make New Mexico a global leader in energy education and research, by integrating all energy sectors into a collaborative system.
- Align education and training programs to meet energy sector workforce needs.
- Grow New Mexico’s healthcare workforce statewide, including multiple levels of providers.
- Ensure that the health workforce is highly diverse and culturally competent.
- Create a highly qualified and diverse pool of K-12 teachers, by expanding and supporting the current and future teacher pipeline.
EDUCATION AND WORKFORCE GOVERNANCE
“New Mexicans have placed considerable importance on accessibility to higher education for many decades,” the report reads, and town hall participants said they want “to boost efficiency, improve accountability, see all the entities operating well, and they were not opposed to developing new systems where needed,” calling for New Mexico to:
- Improve collaboration between New Mexico's colleges and universities. This effort includes incentivizing collaboration among higher education institutions to improve access and equity, streamline pathways to completion, and minimize financial burdens.
- Strengthen governance and accountability for colleges and universities.
- Advance a workforce training governance system that is agile, adaptable, and innovative.
Each of the goals above are expanded with concrete strategies in the town hall report. New Mexico First’s two-day town hall process requires each recommendation proposed by discussion groups to receive a vote of support from at least 85 percent of all participants to be included in New Mexico First’s platform.
“On average, the town hall’s recommendations received support from 94 percent of the participants,” New Mexico First president and executive director Heather Balas said. “Each of the six discussion groups worked hard to craft recommendations that will challenge the status quo.”
Balas said that not every recommendation receives consensus support on the first try.
“If a recommendation received pushback and didn’t cross that threshold of 85 percent support, proponents and critics negotiated until agreement could be reached on certain elements and language,” Balas said.
The April town hall was the organization’s 42nd since its founding in 1986. Some past town halls have discussed healthcare, economic vitality and water.
“Many good people have been working on education reform for years, and that means that some of the town hall’s recommendations are, in part, already underway. Others are new,” Balas said. “What the New Mexico First process brings is heightened awareness of the most critical education and workforce issues and monumentally improved collaboration on these matters. Part of our job is to move current work out of silos and into effective cooperation.”
Bringing down barriers was a common theme that emerged from the half-dozen discussion groups, with each group focusing on a different topic. Collectively, groups said the state’s higher education system will benefit from greater collaboration between community colleges and universities, and making post-high school education more accessible will improve completion and career outcomes.
“With only so much money to be shared by our universities and colleges, we’re compelled to find ways for the schools to collaborate better so that New Mexico develops a more cohesive educational system,” said Del Archuleta, one of two co-chairs heading up efforts to implement the town hall’s recommendations.
Randy Grissom, a former Santa Fe Community College president and Archuleta’s implementation co-chair, said that detailed action plans of the recommendations will be determined in the coming months as the implementation committee and sub-committees convene.
“Our job, after the town hall, is to work with the committee to winnow down that list to a small set for which we can advocate to the Legislature,” Grissom said. “Implementing the full body of work created by the town hall will require even more New Mexicans rallying for these changes, and we will work with community leaders, educators, the media and others to get it accomplished. New Mexico’s future depends on it.”
See the final report, as well as the data-driven background report that preceded the event, on the landing page of the 2018 statewide town hall at http://nmfirst.org/event-details/higher-ed-workforce.
Established in 1986, New Mexico First offers unique town halls and forums that create recommendations for policymakers and the public. New Mexico First also produces nonpartisan reports on critical issues facing the state. These reports on topics like water, education, healthcare, economic development, and energy – are available at nmfirst.org.