Enrollment slumping at most N.M. universities

Economy, shrinking lottery scholarship program, fewer high school graduates contribute to declines


New Mexico State University Chancellor Garrey Carruthers has charisma. With his quick wit and friendly demeanor, the high-spirited 78-year-old can turn a tense situation into a fun and relaxed setting.

But what Carruthers doesn't have is enough students navigating the classrooms on campus in Las Cruces, at least not in the eyes of the university's board of regents.

When the regents gave the popular chancellor the boot last week, announcing they would move forward with a search for a new leader amid calls from lawmakers and others to keep Carruthers on board, some of them cited declining enrollmentand Carruthers' inability to turn the numbers around as a driving factor behind their decision.

"That's terrible," Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima, one of many who lobbied to keep the former Republican governor of New Mexico at the helm of NMSU, said after the regents voted to look for a replacement. "To blame Chancellor Carruthers for declining enrollment when other universities experience the same is unfair."

Declining enrollment is, in fact, endemic at New Mexico's other higher education institutions, with a few exceptions.

From 2012-16, five of the seven research and comprehensive universities and colleges in New Mexico have experienced shrinking enrollment, according to an analysis by The New Mexican. The decline over the five-year period ranges from 3.61 percent at Western New Mexico University in Silver City to nearly 40 percent at Northern New Mexico College in Española.

Educators and others point to several factors behind the drop in enrollment, from falling revenues in New Mexico's lottery scholarship program to a decline in the number of high school graduates. But most say the state of the economy is the root cause.

New Mexico Higher Education Department Secretary Barbara Damron was unavailable for comment Friday, but department spokeswoman Lida Alikhani said fluctuations in enrollment are part of a national trend and closely tied to the economy.

"We're continuing to see encouraging economic news in New Mexico, and that is undoubtedly having an impact," Alikhani said in an email. "The better question is how will our universities respond? Clearly, adjustments will have to be made, and those aren't always easy. It's also our highest priority to keep tuition affordable at our universities -- meaning that universities should not try to 'cover the cost' of declining enrollment by raising tuition on students."

Earlier this year, the regents in Las Cruces raised tuition by about 6 percent, though officials say the increase was used for "student outcomes," such as scholarships and student advising.

While enrollment fell by nearly 16 percent at NMSU between 2012 and 2016, enrollment was down 13.8 percent since Carruthers became chancellor. In addition, the university saw an 11.3 percent increase in first-time freshmen this year, the largest increase in the past 17 years.

"I certainly feel we are turning the corner when it comes to enrollment," Carruthers said in a statement last month when the university's marketing and communications office touted the jump in first-time freshmen. "From what we know so far, our increase in first-time freshmen is incredibly strong, if not the highest in the state."

NMSU Board of Regents Chairwoman Debra Hicks, who got wind Friday that the university was once again promoting the first-time freshmen numbers, called The New Mexican to emphasize that the news release "didn't really talk about enrollment" overall.

"First-time freshmen is not the same thing as enrollment," she said, adding that the university's target is 18,000 students. In the fall of 2016, enrollment at NMSU was 14,852 students.

"We're losing state funds, and we're losing tuition from enrollment," Hicks said.

Year-over-year declines in enrollment weighed heavily on the regents' decision to not extend Carruthers' contract, despite political pressure from lawmakers, donors and others across the state.

"We're on the downward decline when you compare us to our peers in the state and notably [at the University of Texas at El Paso] and others," Hicks said last week after the board voted 4-0 to begin the search for a new chancellor. "Within the state of New Mexico, other universities have increased their enrollment, and we have not."

According to figures provided by the state's Higher Education Department and some of the universities, enrollment increased at only two higher education institutions in the state between 2012 and 2016: Eastern New Mexico University in Portales and the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro -- 2.67 percent and 1.43 percent, respectively.

Enrollment numbers for the fall of 2017 are not yet available.

At the University of Texas at El Paso, which New Mexico State University considers a peer institution, enrollment continues to climb. Enrollment at the school, which has been on the rise for 18 consecutive years, increased more than 5 percent from 2012 to 2016.

At Western New Mexico University, President Joseph Shepard said his school's enrollment decreased slightly but isn't seeing the same declines as the other universities.

"There is a correlation between the economy and enrollment," he said. "The greater the unemployment, the greater the enrollment. In our area, unemployment has fallen."

Shepard also cited fewer high school graduates and lottery scholarship dollars as other factors for the drop in enrollment.

"Less available money means less students," he said, adding that lottery dollars now fund the university at slightly more than 60 percent compared to more than 90 percent just a few years ago.

Dr. Ivan Lopez, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Northern New Mexico College, said the dip in enrollmentat the Española college is partially a result of a "substantial increase" in tuition and fees in 2011.

"Northern was forced to implement tuition/fees increases to address a continuous decrease in our state appropriation since 2008, and the rising operational costs since the college changed its mission from a community college to a 4-year institution," he wrote in an email.

A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that New Mexico is among the states that have seen the deepest cuts in higher education spending since the recession. While schools raised tuition by an average of about 2 percent, or $131 per student, the state cut higher education spending by about $50 per student in the last fiscal year, the report found.

"I don't envy the legislators," said Jeff Elwell, who became president of Eastern New Mexico University about two months ago.

"They have a lot of tough decisions to make. You've got K through 12. You've got Medicaid. You've got roads and prisons. We're getting a smaller and smaller percentage; although, quite honestly, New Mexico gives a larger percentage of their budget than most states," he said. "I just went to new presidents academy in San Diego, and there were 25 of us from 16 states. They range from 6 to almost 40 percent, and we're close to 50 percent of our funding comes from the state. While it's gone down, there are a lot of places [where] a lot of those institutions are in single digits."

Patrice Caldwell, Eastern's director of planning and analysis, said the state cuts haven't affected the university.

"But I would not discount issues of funding for higher education as having at least a residual effect on people's confidence in the universities being able to deliver courses, programs and the services that people have become accustomed to," she said. "I think Dr. Carruthers raised this concern at New Mexico State."

Carruthers, who became dean of the school's business college in 2003, became chancellor in 2013 and guided NMSU through the state's fiscal crisis. Carruthers was an occasional critic of Gov. Susana Martinez, who vetoed the entire higher education budget in the 2017 legislative session. Carruthers announced last month that he planned to retire but later said he would be willing to stay, spurring accusations that Martinez, who is term-limited and appointed all five regents at NMSU, had blacklisted Carruthers and wanted to take over his job, which currently pays about $385,000 annually.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," Regent Kari Mitchell said last week. "I think we can very quickly and easily dismiss this notion that this is an effort to put the governor in this seat."

While Carruthers steered the university through budget cuts, "you can't cut your way to success," Mitchell told the Las Cruces Sun-News.

"You have to grow your way to success," she said.

Elwell said he feels "very badly" for Carruthers.

"He's known nationally -- I can tell you that just coming into this state," Elwell said. "I think he's done all the right things. I don't know what all was involved in the decision, but I'm very sorry to see that happen because I think he's a great guy and has been a great education leader."

Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 505-986-3089 or dchacon@sfnewmexican­.com. Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.