Lower enrollment? New policies push students out

October 8, 2018

As a University of New Mexico professor who studies student retention and success, I read the recent Santa Fe New Mexican editorial on UNM’s enrollment decline with interest, and think there’s another angle to the decline that continues to be overlooked by administrators and legislators narrowly focused on improving four-year graduation rates (“UNM must find out where students went,” Our View, Sept. 24).

In recent years, we have seen full time in the eyes of UNM administrators and the state Legislature defined as 15 hours instead of 12, with students being required to maintain 15 hours to keep their lottery scholarships and those taking less than 15 hours having to subsidize the lower tuition rates that students taking higher loads pay. University presidents, including at UNM, are increasingly given bonuses narrowly based on their ability to boost four-year graduation rates, bonuses that can de-emphasize valuable metrics such as maintaining a diverse student body.

In my experience, the burden of these initiatives falls on our nontraditional student population (e.g., students working to support their studies or who are raising families while going to school, often from minority populations). I’ve seen or heard stories of students in UNM undergraduate classes increasingly struggle because they’re working too many hours and cannot take enough hours to meet the 15-hour requirement.

A student who drops down to 12 hours not only faces the disappointment of dropping a class but also can get slammed with a fresh tuition bill. While those promoting the four years-to-graduation path would argue that students should work less and take out more loans, isn’t it understandable that New Mexico students are reluctant to graduate with a lot of debt with our state’s tepid economy? According to Complete College America’s website, only 19 percent of students nationwide complete a bachelor’s degree in four years. Maybe we should stop treating a four-year graduation rate as the norm and respect the choices of students who work and raise families while taking a bit longer to complete their degrees?

I was glad to see that your editorial drew attention to the dorm residency requirement, which shifts a larger financial burden on students. While there’s an exception for local students, low-income rural students might decide to go elsewhere because the $9,000-plus annual room and board fee, which exceeds tuition, is significantly more than they might pay in a shared apartment with friends from their hometown. Yes, there is an option for students to waive the requirement if they document an “undue hardship on their ability to attend the university,” but this shifts an additional burden onto a student who may not be familiar with this policy or have the support and experience to navigate institutional bureaucracies.

While policies like the 15-hour requirement or the dorm requirement might boost our four-year graduation rate, I keep wondering — who are we pushing out? No wonder students are choosing other options as UNM continues to price out the nontraditional students it ostensibly prides itself on serving.

Todd Ruecker is an associate professor of English at the University of New Mexico. His research focuses on supporting the educational success of diverse students.

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