Commentary: In 2017, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed the entire state appropriation for higher education.
She didn’t mean it. She was mad at Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Linda Lopez for failing to confirm her regents nominees.
Funding was eventually restored in a special session, as everyone knew it would be. But the fact that the governor was willing to hold colleges and universities hostage reflected a lack of support for higher education throughout her eight-year term.
When gas and oil prices tumbled, taking state revenue collections down with them, higher education was the first to take the hit has lawmakers scrambled to balance the budget.
A report last week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed that, at a time when states across the country are cutting funding for higher education, only one has slashed spending for college students at a higher level than New Mexico.
The study found that during the 10-year period from 2008 to 2018, spending decreased by an average of 16 percent per student nationwide. In New Mexico, spending has decreased by 34 percent — an average of $4,792 per student, second only to Louisiana.
Not surprisingly, colleges and universities have increased tuition in an attempt to make up for the lost support. The increase in New Mexico, 38 percent in the past 10 years, is higher than the national average.
And that has been devastating to those students for whom a college education is their best opportunity to break free from generations of poverty.
“The rising cost of college risks blocking one of America’s most important paths to economic mobility. And while these costs hinder progress for everyone, black, Hispanic, and low-income students continue to face the most significant barriers to opportunity,” said Michael Mitchell, senior policy analyst at CBPP and lead author of the report.
New Mexico has other problems that are unique to our state. Our scholarship fund is tied to a state lottery that was once robust enough to cover full tuition costs for all qualifying high school graduates in the state, but now can only cover a fraction of the tuition.
The two new leaders at New Mexico State University have been hit with a one-two combination to the body. First they learned that the university had spent $3.3 million more than had been budgeted for scholarships. Then, they learned that enrollment for next years is expected to decrease by nearly 5 percent.
So, we’re spending more than we can afford on scholarships in an effort to boost enrollment numbers, and yet we’re still seeing enrollment decline. The best we can hope for in the near term is to “stabilize” the situation, Chancellor Dan Arvizu told regents.
The good news is that gas and oil processes are now up, and so is revenue. Lawmakers are expected to have $1.2 billion more this year. Higher education was the first to be cut, and should be among the first to be made whole again when the new money is budgeted.
At the same time, lawmakers should take a comprehensive look at the entire system to ensure that duplication is minimized and that each institution has a unique focus on specific areas of expertise that meet the needs of both students and the state at large.
Walter Rubel is editorial page editor of the Sun-News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.