The college, the legislature and the mission

By Bill Knief

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Each winter when the new year comes around, UNM-Taos Executive Director Dr. Kate O’Neill starts spending more and more time haunting the halls of government in Santa Fe. This year, with a new governor on board and a multitude of philosophical differences colliding within the Roundhouse, it has been particularly challenging, and I asked her to touch on some of the more pressing issues.

“I think it is good news that we have very strong representation at the legislative level, both locally and statewide,” she said. “Education is one of those issues that everyone cares about, and everyone can really get behind and support. So despite our differences I think everyone recognizes the incredible value and importance of education.

“I was honored to meet with Governor Martinez along with six mayors and County Commissioner Dan Barrone as part of the Intergovernmental Council headed up by Barb Wiard last week. We met with the governor to let her know that we don’t just want to be known for gas outages up here; we really have a lot to offer. And she was very receptive. She welcomed the opportunity to learn more about the communities in the north. My sense is she is certainly open minded and interested in learning more about the economic impact on the tourist industry, the challenges we face with education, and some of the adverse effects budget cuts will have on the northern New Mexico region.

“We did our best to underscore for her how committed we are to working together, and how much we need her support for vital services. It is a challenging time to come into the governorship and I hope she heard our message as to how resourceful and hard working we are in the north.

“With that said, we are facing some challenges in advocating for community colleges. As most people know, we have experienced incredible growth. UNM-Taos in particular has seen 45 percent growth in the last five years alone, and our full time students have increased 25 percent. At the same time we have lost 14 percent of our funding just in the last three years.

“We have had to raise tuition and we will likely have to do it again, just to stay even. The state takes a nine percent ‘tuition credit’ right off the top from the two year schools, and if we don’t raise tuition to that level, that means yet another cut. The state is struggling to balance the budget, and they can’t charge for police or other essential services, but they can charge for higher education; it’s a way of generating income.

“We are asking people to speak out about the value of dual credit courses. Currently, students at the nine area high schools in our service area can get both high school and college credit for the same course, if it is pre-approved between the superintendents and our dean of instruction. The dual credit program gives our workforce a jump start. It’s cost effective for parents. Statewide we have a 91 percent completion rate for students in these dual credit classes. At UNM-Taos the completion rate is a phenomenal 97 percent. It’s a great program. Yet in the current budget, funding for 9th and 10th grade students has been cut. If you would like to see this program continue for all high school students, let your legislators know.

“Another area facing cuts in the two year colleges is in the math, reading and writing developmental courses. There has been a lot of growth in this area because people are coming back to school full time seeking new skills or a different career direction, and they need these courses to get up to speed. The average student age in those courses is 33. Statewide, fully 65 percent of college students need at least one developmental course to build their skills up to college level. Again, we must let our legislators know how important these courses are. We must fulfill our mission as an open enrollment college serving the entire community, helping to develop workforce skills across the whole population.

“We have also heard a lot of talk about having too many branches of our flagship university. That is a misuse of language. UNM-Taos and the other branches are statutorily created two year colleges which should not be confused with education centers. Each branch is uniquely situated and configured to serve students in their individual areas of responsibility, and I want to reassure people that UNM-Taos is here, we are strong, we are growing, and despite the budget cuts we are going to continue building the best community college that we can for the whole northern New Mexico region.

“I want to thank community members for their strong support of our community college over the years. Often people have told me that they can’t imagine Taos without UNM-Taos. That is a commitment we intend to live up to.”

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