Pay the raises, but limit university tuition increases

April 13, 2019

The first route to raising more dollars for the state’s colleges and universities should not always be tuition increases. Yet that is where administrators look, especially after years of budget cutting made it more difficult to pay salaries and fund operations.

This year, with the Legislature and governor budgeting more money for higher education, many thought colleges and universities would be able to breathe easier while putting together spending plans.

Not so fast.

The University of New Mexico is saying it will be difficult, if not impossible, to fund mandated 4 percent salary increases for faculty and staff. In fact, figuring out how to pay for the raises is so complex that UNM is postponing budget decisions until next week.

What’s not complex is this: The state Higher Education Department told all of the state’s two- and four-year institutions that the 4 percent increase is not an average, but a boost in pay for each and every worker.

In case that was not clear, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham edited House Bill 2 — funding state operations — to take out wording that called for “average salary” raises. The governor wanted no mistakes. This was not meant to be a raise averaged across all employees, but a 4 percent increase. Since the university’s budget team only added a 2 percent raise in the 2020 draft budget, it is back to the drawing board.

University leaders will have to make tough choices. To be fair, as UNM President Garnett Stokes pointed out, only about half of campus employees are funded through state instruction and general funding — the rest might receive their checks from federal or state grants, for example. Increasing UNM salaries from 2 percent to 4 percent is projected to cost millions more, including fringe benefits, but the Higher Education Department allocated $23.2 million for all colleges and universities and specialized schools. Obviously, UNM and other schools are going to have to find the money for raises somewhere else. (One idea? High-salaried individuals could always decline pay raises and put the money back into the collective pot for everyone else.)

Tuition is the quick go-to place, with proposed UNM base tuition increases proposed that range up to 6 percent — it’s the final number that budget crunchers will be figuring out between this week and next. They also are considering raising certain fees.

Considering the recent decline in UNM enrollment — 7.2 percent in the fall of 2018 — tuition increases could end up forcing some students out, thus costing money if enough people move on. While trying to put together a budget, university administrators better figure that some students might not be able to afford to pay more.

UNM isn’t the only school that likely faces a budget crunch — New Mexico State University also was not planning on handing out individual 4 percent raises. NMSU administrators believe they could face a $3.8 million shortfall, although tuition already is going up. We’re sure community colleges and smaller schools also will be scrambling to budget correctly.

Experts at the Higher Education Department should be standing by to help with budgeting; this should be a collective process in which all parties work together. Otherwise, the good news — that the 2020 budget for higher education institutions is $822 million, up 3 percent from last year — could be overshadowed by the struggle to find money for raises.

However the budget shakes out, the last resort to meet shortfalls — and for the smallest amount possible — should be hefty increases in tuition and fees.