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UNM has to find out where the students went

September 24, 2018

The University of New Mexico will continue struggling with its budget — enrollment is declining, and not slowly.

The state’s largest university reported last week that its enrollment had dropped 7.2 percent, a much sharper decline than the 2.5 percent projected. With the larger drop in students, UNM will be losing $9.7 million in tuition and fees. While the school has $4 million in reserves, cuts still will be necessary to balance the books.

For a university that has spent much of the past decade cutting back — it’s seen a steady decrease in students over the years, and the state has reduced higher education funding — this unexpected decline is one more obstacle to overcome.

Thankfully, university leaders understand that across-the-board cuts will not fix the problem. Instead, leaders from across the campus will be meeting to think strategically — first to balance this year’s budget and then to plan for a more robust future. Budget planning happens every year, but preparing for next year’s budget has taken on new urgency.

Part of the planning process has to be a focus on finding out why enrollment took such a steep drop. Is it a blip or a trend? What’s likely next year? Why such a big drop now?

Speculation varies. Freshmen are required to live on campus again, and that could be a factor affecting enrollment of new students. Other theories are that would-be students are choosing to work — the job market is better — rather than attend college and that they might be attending school elsewhere, perhaps at local community colleges.

In addition to the regular budget planning, the university is forming an enrollment task force. We’d suggest, as part of the process, tracking the students who drop out and finding out why. It could be lack of money, a need to work or the ever-present challenge of not being prepared for college work.

For new President Garnett Stokes, the challenges of the job seem to be growing daily. She already has faced the storm of criticism after (gasp!) cutting sports programs in an attempt to make the school more fiscally sound. Now, she has to figure out why students are not enrolling and how the university can keep delivering a quality education with few dollars flowing in. Oh, and several state legislators — and even Democratic gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham — are unhappy about the cutbacks in sports (we’re waiting to hear their cries of horror over the big enrollment decline, a much more serious problem for UNM). Stokes has political minefields ahead as well as other issues of running the university.

The first step is to gather facts. Find out what happened to the students who didn’t show up. Examine spending — and if the budget is too close to the bone, start lobbying now for more funding during the next legislative session. After all, higher education took more than its share of hits during New Mexico’s economic downturn of the past 10 years.

It’s only fair that colleges and universities receive some of the oil-and-gas boom windfall. But those dollars won’t be allocated until next year.

This fall, as UNM prepares for homecoming week, the news is grim.

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