Report: New Mexico's in-state college affordability leads in nation

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Tuition rates for in-state students at public colleges and universities are lower in New Mexico than in any other state in the nation, a new report says.

Student Loan Hero, an Austin, Texas-based student loan management company, used U.S. Department of Education data to calculate the average cost per credit hour for residents to attend public colleges and universities in each state. The average rate at schools around New Mexico is by far the lowest, at $112.77, the firm said in its report.

California ranked second at about $120 per credit hour, followed by Wyoming at $122, the report said.

The report's takeaway? "If you are a New Mexico resident, it would pay for you to stay in state to go to college," said Elyssa Kirkham, a writer and researcher for Student Loan Hero. In-state rates usually don't apply to out-of-state students.

The states with the highest tuition rates are Vermont at $466 per credit hour, Pennsylvania at $435 and New Hampshire at $388, the report said. Nationwide, the average tuition is $325 per credit hour for four-year public schools, $135 for public two-year colleges, $1,000 for private universities and $647 for private colleges.

There may be several reasons why higher education is more affordable in New Mexico, Kirkham said, including the fact that there are about 30 colleges and universities for the state's roughly 2 million residents, leading to a sense of competition.

"You don't get that kind of a good deal unless you have committed [government] investment in the state college system," she added.

But the Student Loan Hero report comes as colleges and universities in New Mexico may face another round of cuts. After seeing higher education spending reduced by 2 percent last spring, and then an additional 5 percent during a special session last fall as lawmakers and the governor wrangled with a financial crisis, most universities and community colleges likely will see another hit in the fiscal year that begins in July.

The fiscal year 2018 budget approved by the Legislature - but not yet signed by Gov. Susana Martinez - includes a 1 percent cut for higher education. Martinez has vowed to veto the spending plan and call lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session to craft a new budget with no tax increases. The regular 2017 legislative session ended Saturday.

Many schools have begun planning for staff and salary reductions and program changes to prepare for smaller budgets.

Vandeen McKenzie, director of financial aid for New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, said the news of New Mexico's low tuition compared to other states is good and may even help boost student enrollment.

Still, she said, it "does not reduce the budgetary concerns we have in higher education. We have been sensitive to the needs of students by keeping tuition low, but this means that any budget crisis impacts us greatly."

Schools across the state have seen student numbers drop in recent years since a post-recession peak between 2009 and 2011 - a trend around the nation, as well, though New Mexico has seen a steeper decline, with numbers falling more than 8 percent between 2014 and 2015, compared to less than 2 percent nationally, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Some schools in the state have been hit harder than others. While NMSU saw a 12 percent drop in full-time equivalent students between 2010 and 2015 at its Las Cruces campus, The University of New Mexico's Albuquerque campus saw an overall 2 percent increase in that time, according to both schools' enrollment reports.

The figures are starting to level out. Between 2014 and 2015, each campus lost just over 2 percent of its students.

A National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report released in December said that nationally, undergraduate and graduate student enrollment continued to decline last year, dropping by 1.4 percent - or nearly 1.6 million students.

Randy Grissom, president of Santa Fe Community College, where tuition costs $47 per credit, said declining college enrollment in any state is not unusual following an economic recovery, when the job market improves. During the national recession that began in 2008, college student numbers rose significantly, including in New Mexico.

"Once the economy comes back," Grissom said, "people do start going to work and cut back on attending school."

New Mexico's unemployment rate remains high, however - the worst in the nation - and many people without jobs are still enrolling in community colleges to earn an affordable education, he said.

That's where low tuition helps, said Terry Babbitt, associate vice president of enrollment management at UNM.

"Tuition is a big contributor to adding enrollment from a period of decline," he said. "A lot of that decline is from adult students with high unemployment rates, and historically they look to higher ed to improve their employability, so making tuition affordable is key."

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

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