UNM-Taos: one of the fastest growing colleges in the nation

By Bill Knief

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Each year the arrival of the Fastest Growing Community Colleges edition of Community College Week is cause for excitement. It uses the most current comparative statistics (Fall 2011-12) from IPEDS, the federal government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, to analyze trends in two and four year college enrollment, and recognize those colleges that have experienced the greatest percentage of growth.

This time UNM-Taos ranked 17th in a field of 350 two-year public colleges across the nation with enrollment of less than 2,500 students. While colleges in our size group dropped an average of 2.9 percent and enrollment in private, for-profit institutions declined more than 8 percent, UNM-Taos enrollment increased a remarkable 14.7 percent.

The overall downward trend in college enrollment had been anticipated for some time, according to Victor M. H. Borden, Professor of Education Leadership and Policy Studies at Indiana University. In his article accompanying the fastest growing community college statistics, he said, “Community colleges have always played an important role in meeting workforce needs through education and training. Like all postsecondary institutions, community colleges also provide a productive haven during recessionary times for people who have lost jobs or those who have yet to obtain productive work. Community college students can obtain marketable skills, especially for emerging professions, at relatively low cost during low-employment periods and be prepared for jobs as the economy picks up.”

So what’s so different about UNM-Taos? Executive Director Dr. Kate O’Neill likes to say, making reference to the well-known children’s story, that we’re the little college that could. In other words, we try harder, and make up for what we lack in size by applying best practices to everything from fiscal responsibility to the quality of our adjunct and full time faculty, who possess a higher rate of advanced degrees than most college and university faculties.

Probably the most important factor in our national success, however, can be found in the makeup of the citizens of northern New Mexico that we serve. Living in a remote, underserved area with sparse population, low income and few opportunities has made them resilient and self-reliant, rather than discouraged and self-defeating. They know that even in the darkest of times education can light the way to a more satisfying and productive life.

This spring semester alone enrollment increased nearly 10 percent over last year, and fall semester saw an all time high of 1,857 students. These are not people who give up easily. Many are first generation college students. Fifty-seven percent are female, and ethnicity closely parallels the general population of Taos County: Hispanics make up 60 percent, Anglos 29 percent, and Native Americans over 5 percent. Even though every semester we see more first time students just out of high school, the student body’s average age is still above 30 years.

“Education is the great equalizer,” Dr. O’Neill maintains, and David Trujillo, our grants administrator, says that it is the open door to the American dream. That focus keeps us moving forward, and with the support of our elected officials in the state legislature, UNM-Taos will continue to maintain a presence on the national stage while providing quality, affordable education for all who seek it here at home.

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