THE BAD NEWS
The State of New Mexico is low on revenue, and that affects higher education because in trying to balance the budget, the state must look for ways to cut costs. At present it appears that revenues for the 2009-2010 fiscal year are going to be between 150 million and 250 million lower than projected, primarily because the price of oil and gas has dropped. That shortfall is relatively small compared to other states such as Arizona and California, where they have already begun laying off tenured faculty, instituting mandatory unpaid furloughs and setting enrollment caps. But it is still a lot of money to come up with.
According to UNM-Taos Executive Director Dr. Kate O’Neill, the local fallout from this predicament is already taking its toll: “The tuition that students pay does not fully cover our costs, so the state matches those dollars according to a formula based on credit hours and head count each semester. But this past year the state was forced to cut the UNM-Taos budget by eight percent. That translates as $322,000 from the I. and G. (Instructional and General) fund, also called formula dollars.”
THE REALLY BAD NEWS
The irony is that even as resources are dwindling, the need for academic and technical training has never been greater. A recent Time Magazine report named community colleges as “…one of the best tools the U.S. has to dig itself out of the current economic hole,” because they “educate nearly half of U.S. undergraduates….These institutions are our nation’s trade schools…”
“We really are the lifeline for the community, O’Neill maintained. “When people get laid off or their particular business sector is not performing well, they look for opportunities to retool, get new skills. That’s where we step in with workforce training, certificates, degrees and lifelong learning.”
To put pressure on higher education at a time of great need in order to reduce deep deficits is somewhat like the dilemma of a subsistence agricultural community being forced to eat their stores of seed corn to survive. The immediate problem might be solved, but where will the next harvest come from?
Just this past week it was announced that there will be another five percent recession—money deducted from the present operating budget—on top of the eight percent already withdrawn.
FINALLY, SOME GOOD NEWS
“We’re pulling rabbits out of a hat here,” O’Neill explained, “trying to produce extraordinary results with very minimal resources. But we are holding steady at $57 per credit hour, and word is getting out that people are getting more value for their dollar here at home. We might have to be more attentive to minimum numbers of students per class, but we have no cap on enrollment. Students will not be turned away. Construction plans will continue unchanged, but we do have a hold on new hires and salary increases.”
These tough times call for more collaboration on the local level, and stimulus money is already beginning to help, O’Neill maintains. Furthermore, according to a recent article in USA Today, President Obama is rolling out a 12 billion dollar program that will put community colleges at the top of his economic recovery priorities. “Among his goals: to modernize community college facilities, to increase the quality of online courses and to ensure that more students complete their programs.”
“Just so people understand,” O’Neill said, “we place a great deal of emphasis on keeping the faculty and staff we have, despite the fact that we might have to conserve or cut back in other areas. We have a balance of priorities in keeping people first: students, faculty and staff.
“At a time when people are struggling, community colleges are the single premiere institution available in northern New Mexico to reach out a hand and help people get back on their feet. And when we do that, we help the whole economy get back on its feet.”