On heels of town hall, New Mexico First seeks to stabilize what’s working in higher ed

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Heather Balas is the president and executive director of New Mexico First.

New Mexicans know that obtaining a credential or a degree after high school increases a person’s earning potential across a lifetime. However, rising education costs and poorly defined pathways can make college seem out of reach, especially for low-income students. By 2020, an estimated 63 percent of New Mexico jobs will require at least some college, yet the state falls short in supplying a skilled workforce to fill those positions.

At New Mexico First’s 2018 town hall, “Strengthening Higher Education and Tomorrow’s Workforce,” participants recommended financial support for students so they encumber as little debt as possible while completing well-defined higher education pathways, from certificates to professional degrees. To that end, we are working on two urgent pieces of legislation that will prevent the shuttering of two important projects: the College Affordability Fund and the SUN PATH program for students aspiring to healthcare careers.

To help more students pay for schooling, the New Mexico Legislature established the College Affordability Fund in 2005. Since its creation, the fund has provided roughly 50,000 scholarships to New Mexico residents who do not meet the requirements of the Lottery Scholarship.

Existing law establishing the College Affordability Fund calls for steady investments into the endowment fund. However, during the last decade the Legislature repeatedly took money from the fund to pay for other needs. At this point, without intervention, FY18 will be the last year students may apply for these dollars, because the fund is essentially empty.

New Mexico First’s town hall implementation team recommends replenishing the fund with $50 million from the budget surplus and begin re-growing the endowment. Also, it’s time to update the law to authorize at least $3 million a year in expenditures for student scholarships, which should be increased to at least $1,500 per semester per student. If enacted, these reforms can ensure that the College Affordability Fund continues to help students complete higher education in a wide range of fields.

By contrast, another higher education program known as SUN PATH, provides support specifically to college students pursuing health careers. New Mexico faces significant shortages in healthcare professionals, so the program helps fill critical needs statewide while also helping students fulfill career goals. A coalition of New Mexico colleges, agencies and employers, SUN PATH has enabled 3,100 students to complete health degrees and certifications – at a 34 percent higher rate than average high school graduates. What’s more, students who complete SUN PATH are ready for the job and earn higher wages. The Bureau of Business and Economic Research concluded that SUN PATH produces a $2.22 return on investment for every dollar spent.

Without the Legislature’s intervention, SUN PATH will close its doors because the federal grant that created it has ended. The hard and expensive phase of building the project is completed; now we just have to maintain it. Additionally, the program can be replicated for other in-demand New Mexico industries, like energy, IT, and early childhood and K-12 teacher training.

New Mexico has never been in a better financial position to help our aspiring college graduates. As the College Affordability Fund and SUN PATH demonstrate, we do not always have to reinvent the wheel. Instead we can maintain smart solutions that are already offering proven results.

Heather Balas is the president and executive director of New Mexico First, a statewide, nonpartisan public policy organization, that advances New Mexico through independent research, civic engagement and advocacy. Browse our library of town hall reports and more at nmfirst.org. The views in this column are the author’s alone and do not reflect the view or opinions of New Mexico In Depth.