N.M. cuts to higher ed funding among steepest

Report shows investment per student fell by nearly a third since recession

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New Mexico is among the states that have seen the steepest reductions in higher education spending since the national recession, a new report says, investing nearly a third less per student in the last fiscal year than it did in 2008.

The report, by the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit research institute, shows a nationwide trend of declining public funding for colleges and universities as tuition rates steadily rise, placing a heavier burden on students to help fund school operations. The research center released the analysis last week, just months after many public colleges and universities in New Mexico once again raised tuition rates and trimmed programs and staff in response toa recent series of state spending cuts.

Earlier this year, a student loan management company found that New Mexico has, by far, the nation's lowest tuition rates for in-state students attending public schools. The same organization, Austin, Texas-based Student Loan Hero, also ranked the state second in the nation for the economic benefits of an academic degree, saying a New Mexico graduate's average return on investment is 150 percent within five years.

But without state policy changes, the D.C. nonprofit warns, higher education -- and its benefits -- will become further out of reach for a growing number of young people in New Mexico and across the nation, particularly minority students and those from low-income families.

"At a time when the benefit of a college education has never been greater," the report says, "state policymakers have made going to college less affordable and less accessible to the students most in need."

James Jimenez, executive of New Mexico Voices for Children, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit that advocates for child well-being, agreed. "We have made it much more difficult for them to build the sort of skills they need to compete in this economy," he said in a statement in response to the new report.

The report doesn't take into account New Mexico's lottery scholarship, which has covered most tuition costs for tens of thousands of New Mexico students attending in-state schools for more than two decades. Because of declining revenue from lottery ticket sales, this year's scholarships will cover only 60 percent of tuition, forcing about 26,000 students in the program to pay more out of pocket.

New Mexico ranks eighth among states for the rate at which its per-student funding has dropped since before the recession, the report says, with funding levels adjusted for nearly a decade of inflation. When it comes to the dollar amount per student, New Mexico's funding decline between 2008 and 2017 is second-highest at $4,509. That number is topped only by Louisiana, at $5,350.

The nationwide average higher education cut in that time period is $1,448 per student, or 16 percent.

Only five states have seen an overall increase in higher education funding since 2008. And while most states did increase funding over the last school year, the report says, New Mexico, which has grappled with a fiscal crisis, is among more than a dozen that continued to make cuts.

The state cut higher education spending by about $50 per student in the last fiscal year, the report says, and schools raised tuition by an average of about 2 percent, or $131 per student.

Public schools also are cutting jobs and programs and increasing class size, the report says. It cites the elimination of 120 jobs at New Mexico State University, as well as reductions in employees' benefits.

NMSU officials did not respond to requests for comment.

University of New Mexico Interim President Chaouki Abdallah said in an email that UNM also has made "severe internal cutsand adjustments."

"It is true that New Mexico, like many other states, has reduced its per student funding because of the various pressures on the state budget," Abdallah said. "Tuition increases have made up some of the reduced funding but not all of it." Meanwhile, he said, "the costs of teaching, benefits, physical infrastructure, compliance, etc." have continued to increase.

Still, Abdallah said, New Mexico is one of the few states where tuition remains lower than the state appropriation for each full-time student.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recommends that states raise revenue for colleges and universities by "repealing ineffective tax deductions, exemptions and credits, rolling back past years' tax cuts or raising certain tax rates."

Legislative efforts in New Mexico to increase revenue by raising taxes aren't likely to succeed under Gov. Susana Martinez, who has vowed to veto any such measure.

In the 2017 legislative session, Martinez vetoed about half the spending in a budget passed by both chambers of the Legislature that required a companion package of tax and fee increases to remain balanced. She also vetoed the tax package. Included in the spending she vetoed was the entire higher education budget.

During a special session to come to an agreement on the state budget, Martinez supported a massive overhaul of the state's gross receipts tax system, and she signaled that she would be open to raising some taxes as part of a broader reform plan that eliminates loopholes, lowers overall tax rates and is more accommodating to businesses.

Lawmakers rejected a hefty tax reform measure, however, saying the short special session was an inappropriate time toaddress the issue.

Lida Alikhani, a spokeswoman for the state Higher Education Department, defended the state's level of support for colleges and universities, saying in a statement that "New Mexico invests a higher percentage of the state budget into higher education than many other states across the nation."

She added, "Our higher education institutions are extremely important to this administration and we are proud that our colleges and universities are working to become more efficient."

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.c­om.

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