Background Report: Strengthening Higher Education and Tomorrow’s Workforce Town Hall

CH 1: High School Preparedness and Community College

Keys to Student Success

New Mexico’s young people are smart, motivated, committed to their families and willing to work hard. They are a tremendous asset to our state, and our future is quite literally in their hands. It is essential that we provide young adults the support they need to excel academically and personally. When students finish high school, they need the ability to make informed choices about their potential careers and the types of jobs that are needed in New Mexico. In addition, our nontraditional students – perhaps returning to college later in life for retraining or to get their careers off the ground – often need similar information. All these students must select the best educational pathway to open the doors for their chosen careers. Many of those career goals can be met with the training provided through community colleges and trade schools. However, students and families often lack adequate information about the practical application of these degrees. Or, they require more sufficient preparation in high school for any type of degree. This chapter focuses on high school preparation across the board and meeting the unique educational needs of students pursuing associate degrees and trade certifications.

Key Considerations

Reviewing these opportunities and challenges, readers see the urgency of this topic. How can we support high schoolers and returning college students in considering whether community colleges or trade schools are right for them? Are career pathways adequately clear? Do students know what jobs are likely to be available in New Mexico, and are they using that information to inform their decisions? What roles do dual credit or high school vocational training play in preparing students for community college or trade school? And how can educators avoid “tracking” students into an education path that may ultimately prove too directed or narrow?

Figure 1: Certificates and associate degrees earned, N.M.

Education Data

Awareness of community college opportunities is growing, with the number of trade certifications awarded in New Mexico having increased 58 percent between 2012 and 2016. The number of associate degrees awarded during the same period remained about the same.[1]

Economic development advocates often point to the need for increased numbers of graduates for all levels of education. Statewide, 37 percent of working age residents hold an associate degree or higher, which is the lowest percentage of the Four Corners states and places us in the bottom third of states nationally.[2] An additional nine percent of New Mexicans hold a postsecondary certificate.[3] (“Postsecondary” means any education delivered after high school.) As the following chart illustrates, 42 percent of the state holds a high school degree or less with no college. (This figure varies considerably by county, with a low of 18 percent in McKinley compared with a high of 75 percent in Los Alamos county.) In an era when most jobs require college training, this educational shortfall brings significant challenges for New Mexico’s people and economy. By 2020, an estimated 63 percent of New Mexico jobs will require college, just under half of those at the “some college” or associate degree levels.[4] Meeting current and future workforce needs will require solid growth in degree earners by all races and ethnicities, as well as genders. (See Chapter 2 for data by race and gender.)

Figure 2: Four Corners states residents with associate degree or more, 2016
Figure 3: Educational attainment levels in New Mexico, working age residents, 2015

How Long Does It Really Take?

In New Mexico, it takes full-time students about four years to finish a credential, regardless what type. Among full-time students completing certificates or degrees in 2014, the average time to complete the degree was:[5]

  • 7 years for certificates
  • 1 years for associate degrees
  • 6 years for bachelor’s degrees

None of these degrees are supposed to take that long. The durations reflect the reality that some students go to school part-time, and others change degrees plans along the way thus extending their time in college. The timeframes shortened about a year at each degree level for nontraditional students (defined as those 25 and older). By contrast, students who were required to take remedial courses took an average of six months longer to complete their credentials than the average durations above. 

Statewide Attainment Goal: New Mexico’s Higher Education Department (HED) established a goal that, by 2030, 66 percent of the working age population would have a postsecondary credential, including a trade certification, associate degree, or university degree. This goal is generally in line with the Lumina Foundation’s national goal of 60 percent by 2025. It is, however, an ambitious target, given that an estimated 45 percent of the state currently holds some type of credential. Do members of the town hall have suggestions for achieving this goal?

Helping Students Make Informed Choices

Students, educators and employers report that students often lack key information to make good choices for their interests and circumstances. The first decision is whether to even go to college (including trade school). Student worry about whether they and their families can afford it, or whether it will be worth the effort. Once students cross that threshold and decide they do want some kind of college, many lack information about their options.

“Are we doing enough help students explore their strengths and interests, and are we helping them understand that nearly any career they might pursue will require some level of post-high school education?” asked Angelo Gonzales of the Albuquerque-based organization Mission Graduate. He and others interviewed for this report observed that some students do not have the information to even consider community college or trade certificates. In other cases, when high school counselors share information about the trades, some families object because they worry their children are being tracked into “less promising” futures.[6] These types of challenges are closely linked to equity considerations associated with how institutions prepare young people for their futures, including the hopes and dreams of their families.

Whether students attend community colleges or four-year universities (or some combination), national data indicates they are doing it to improve their work outcomes.[7] In one of the largest national studies on record, a strong majority of education consumers (58 percent) report their primary motivation for college is getting a good job, not general pursuit of more knowledge, meeting family expectations, or doing what their friends are doing. The motivation was almost identical among men and women. The same study – which included nontraditional students – found that people who did not complete their degree wish they would have pursued a different major. Both these findings point to the potential benefits of early career counseling. 

As noted in the introduction, the more education students receive, the more earnings they take in over the course of their lifetimes. On average, earnings increase between five to 15 percent for every year of college. People with at least some college earn an average of $200,000 more over their lifetimes than students with a high school degree only. For graduates with an associate degree, that number increases to $280,000. A registered apprenticeship program can increase lifetime earnings by $240,000.[8]

Career Prep in High School

Overall, this report focuses primarily on higher education reforms. However, the linkage with high school preparation cannot be overlooked. Adequate preparation in high school is an essential ingredient to success in either community college or university. The information is included here, but it is equally relevant for Chapter 2.

Multiple students and researchers interviewed for this report recommended more concrete information in high school for students to find pathways to successful careers. Many resources exist – at high school and college levels – but it appears that students often do not know about those supports. Young people also report that high school students know little about the pros and cons of community college and university. They say students know the lottery scholarship exists to help pay for college, so they assume they will go to a college – and for many the general assumption is a four-year school. That path is right for some students, not others. The following high school strategies apply equally to community college and university students.

Next Step Plan

Expanding the use and utility of the Next Step Plan might be on option to help students sort their options. In New Mexico, students develop this personalized written plan, starting in eighth grade. They update it annually until graduation.[9] The purpose of the plan is to target the student’s career interests, and lay out the corresponding courses that line up with those goals. Each plan is developed in partnership with parents and a school counselor. The plan is intended to include career goals, college plans, financial aid exploration, and an examination of industry certification or other job options. These objectives imply that students are receiving solid information on all types of education, but local implementation of Next Step Plans varies considerably.[10]

New Mexico lawmakers in the 2018 legislative session considered a bill (House Bill 23) that would have amended the Next Step Plan to require students to apply to a postsecondary educational institution, an internship or apprenticeship, or military service prior to graduation. The bill did not pass but generated considerable discussion about the role of the state in students’ lives after graduation, and whether applying for a job immediately out of high school should have been one of the options. Student completion of a final Next Step Plan is not a legal graduation requirement, but PED encourages it for all students.

Dual Credit

Dual credit courses are classes completed in high school that enable students to also earn college credit. The courses usually count as electives for high school. These courses can fast-track undergraduate or vocational degrees, and students do not pay tuition. In some cases, modest course fees apply. For example, San Juan Community College offers over 400 courses students can take for dual credit, all online or on their campus.[11] Courses range from accounting, to Navajo rug weaving, to chemistry. Course fees cost between $0 to $40. 

Dual credit courses are available for all types of students and may be particularly beneficial for people in underserved populations. “For example, if you are a first-generation college student, dual credit is a great opportunity to experience the college environment,” commented Sydney Gunthorpe of CNM, interviewed for this report. “How do you even begin to imagine your academic future if you don’t know anything about college? Dual credit helps you find the front door.”

Over 20,000 New Mexico students (about 20 percent of high schoolers) took at least one dual credit course in 2016.[12] The courses are intended to improve high school students’ preparedness for college and shorten the time needed to complete a certificate or degree. For many students, these aims are met. New Mexico dual credit students are less likely to require remediation in college and – as a whole – they complete a college credential in less time than peers who do not.[13]

The state invests significantly in dual credit courses. In FY16, the Legislative Finance Committee reports that the legislature appropriated $37 million to public high schools for dual credit course, plus an estimated $16.4 million in higher education funding formula compensation for the colleges and universities that deliver most of the courses.[14] Many people say this money is well-spent: an independent analysis prepared by the nonprofit Bridge of Southern New Mexico shows positive returns on investment – or ROI – for both the state and families for dual credit.[15] However, given the amount New Mexico spends and the overall desire to see the dual credit program make an even greater impact, various reforms were recently proposed by a Dual Credit Council comprised of PED and HED staffers. The reforms would require dual credit students to:

  • Tie their courses to their Next Step Plan or meta-major
  • Demonstrate academic readiness for college coursework (i.e., assessment or placement test)
  • Take dual credit courses for regular grades (not pass/fail or audit)

Early College High Schools

This type of program – often organized as a charter school – offers rigorous curriculum starting in ninth grade that enables students to take college-level courses in high school.[16] Students may concurrently earn a high school diploma and a college-level credential or degree. In some cases, these tuition-free schools serve traditionally underrepresented students, including low-income, first-generation college-goers, students of color and English language learners. Early college programs can operate as stand-alone schools, be located within a larger high school, or exist on a college campus. New Mexico currently operates 24 early college high schools. The Education Commission of the States reports that some states fail to set clear policies or dedicated funding streams, resulting in schools that fall apart when a dynamic founder leaves or seed funding dries up. It may be valuable for New Mexico to assess sustainability planning for these programs.

Career and Technical Education in High School

What used to be called “vocational training” was phased out of many schools in recent decades. Today, it is often referred to today as “career and technical education.” Whatever the name, increasing numbers of educators and parents in New Mexico and nationally call for more of this type of programming in high schools, giving students more hands-on preparation for the workplace. Some people point to vocational training as a strategy to better serve more boys, who generally graduate in lower numbers than girls. (See Chapter 2 for graduation data by gender.) Career and technical education can include traditional activities like “shop class” where students learn carpentry, plumbing, welding or auto repair. Or, training can focus on subjects like computer science, 3D modeling, healthcare or culinary arts.

Career Clusters

New Mexico’s Public Education Department encourages high school students to explore career clusters, publishing a guide offering information on 16 clusters and 77 related career pathways.[17] The information is also presented in a somewhat interactive format at the New Mexico Programs of Study website. Students are urged to explore career options in eighth grade and, with their families, select an area to pursue in high school. Specific high school courses are recommended based on students’ interests. Clusters include:

  1. Agriculture, food and natural resources
  2. Architecture and construction
  3. Arts, audio/video and communications
  4. Business, management and administration
  5. Education and training
  6. Finance
  7. Government and public administration
  8. Health science
  9. Hospitality and tourism
  10. Human services
  11. Information technology
  12. Law, public safety, corrections and security
  13. Manufacturing
  14. Marketing, sales and service
  15. Science, technology, engineer and mathematics
  16. Transportation, distribution and logistics

Supporting Underserved Students Through Targeted Programs

One federal program is known as GEAR UP (officially named Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs). It aims to increase the number of students going to college. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, New Mexico’s program serves approximately 11,000 students in 25 high schools, several serving tribal communities. GEAR UP also serves first-year college students, supporting their transition to higher education. The state’s program advances the following goals:[18]

  • Increase student and family knowledge about post-high school education.
  • Increase high school graduation and college enrollment rates of GEAR UP students.
  • Improve the academic performance of students so that they are prepared to do college level work.

Educators and families may need to explore how to advance these goals if the program is not funded beyond 2019. It is currently in the sixth of a seven-year grant. A related program, AVID, stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination. The program deploys unique teacher professional development that focuses on students’ academic needs and goal-setting. It also provides key skills that can help high school students succeed in Advanced Placement courses. Most participants are middle and high school students who would be the first in their family to attend college. The AVID program is offered in over 50 locations in New Mexico, roughly half in Albuquerque.[19]

ACT Testing

One measure of students’ preparedness for college is the ACT, a college admission exam completed by about 60 percent of students nationally.[20] The test establishes college-readiness benchmarks in four areas that predict how well students are prepared for college courses. The subjects are English, math, reading and science. In New Mexico, 18 percent of test-takers in the 2017 graduating class met the college readiness benchmarks in all four areas (compared with 27 percent nationally).[21] Significant racial and ethnic achievement gaps exist across these scores, with White and Asian students far more likely to meet the benchmarks than Hispanic, Native American and African American students. The gap was relatively consistent across subjects. Other than Asian students, test-takers of all backgrounds scored notably better on English and reading than on math and science.

Figure 4: Percentage of N.M. students meeting ACT college prepared targets in all four subjects, by race/ethnicity, 2017

These benchmarks point to the need to improve college preparedness for all high schoolers and particularly for students of color. The lack of preparedness leads to remedial coursework in college, a challenge that notably reduced college completion at community college and university levels. Engaging more students in Advanced Placement courses is one strategy to improving college preparedness.

Understanding the Options

Students across the nation, including in New Mexico, often struggle to understand potential career options and choose a college major. It seems clear that some students do not really know the difference between the types of community college or university degrees, or which degrees might lead to the personal and financial futures they might want.

A lot of useful data is available, just posted in different locations. For example, the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions (DWS) publishes labor statistics on predicted job availability. And many students receive the career cluster information described above. It appears that some type of crosswalk between the higher education options presented below, DWS data on in-demand careers, labor and earnings information, and career clusters might prove beneficial for students. Reviewers of this document reported that different government and education officials may be attempting to compile this type of synthesis. Additionally, the types of basic information in the following table appear to be absent from many students’ and families’ college decision-making. This challenge is especially true among first-generation students and other underserved populations.

TABLE: Overview of Types of Degrees and Credentials


How Long Should it Take?[22]


Associate Degree

2-3 years

Designed to prepare student to transfer to a bachelor’s program

Applied Associate Degree

2-3 years

Career degrees intended for immediate entry into the workforce


3 - 5 years

Blocks of courses offered in conjunction with trade organizations

Certificate of Completion

1-2 semesters

Credential that is not a college degree; it prepares people to enter specific occupations or upgrade workplace skills

Certificate of Achievement

1 semester or less

Credential that can be completed quickly to prepare students to enter specific occupations or upgrade workplace skills

Bachelor’s Degree

4 years

Degree preparing students for various careers

Graduate Degree

2-5 years after Bachelor’s

Advanced degree preparing students for various careers

Professional Degree

3-7 years after Bachelor’s

Advanced degrees for specific careers, such as physicians or attorneys.

See Appendix B for a more detailed version of this table, including examples of majors.

In addition to considering what types of degrees to pursue, students and families need to know how much they will cost and what types of financial aid might help. This is a significant issue affecting both community college and university students. See Chapter 2.

Opportunity Youth

Across the nation, 4.9 million American youth ages 16-24 are both out of school and not working.[23] That’s one-in-seven young people who are disconnected from our economy and educational systems. New Mexico has the highest rate of disconnected youth in the nation, at 17 percent.[24] Described in this report as “opportunity youth,” this group includes young people who are eager to further their education, gain work experience and help their communities. Roughly half of opportunity youth are people of color. Multiple organizations, employers and schools are working to maximize the potential of these young people, helping them find their next destination – whether that be college, the workplace or some combination.

Examples of efforts include:[25]

  • Year-long training programs that combine six months of classroom training on career skills with six months of employer internships, preparing young people for good jobs
  • Outreach efforts tied to the WorkKeys testing program, helping young people identify skills gaps or employment options for which they are qualified
  • Hiring programs from companies including Gap, CVS or American Express specifically reaching out to opportunity youth
  • Service corps, including one organized by AmeriCorps, that connects opportunity youth with environmental stewardship projects

Strategies for Success

Students who choose community college experience unique challenges and opportunities. National data points to some common predictors of success, measured by completing an associate degree or trade certification:[26]

  • Get started in high school. Students who earn dual credit, get good grades, and take a college entrance exam before leaving college are more likely to complete their credential.
  • Start college strong. Earning a good GPA and completing a full load of credits in first year of college are the strongest overall predictors of completion success.
  • Don’t wait. Delaying enrollment into college, or enrolling in an out-of-state community college, significantly reduce the probability of finishing.
  • Have some fun. The direct-from-high school students who participated in extracurricular activities when first enrolled are more likely to graduate.

“15 to Finish”

Given that both community college and university students struggle to finish school on time, considerable attention occurs across the nation about the causes. An associate degree is generally thought to take 60 credit hours, which at 15 hours a semester, can be completed in two years. Complete College America’s “15 to Finish” campaign draws attention to the fact that most students do not take that course load. Some attend part time, or others enroll in 12 hours a semester – which is the official threshold for “full time” and is amount required to receive federal financial aid. At that number of hours, students pay the minimum amount for full-time tuition and they have more time to work part-time jobs. However, that pace can add an additional one or two semesters to completing a degree. The result: students either do not graduate, or they graduate late, all the while taking on additional debt and delaying their career goals.[27]

Banded Tuition and Credit Caps

One strategy to advance on-time completion – at both community colleges and universities – is banded tuition, which is most often a flat rate for full-time students taking between 12 and 18 credit hours. This approach gives students a financial incentive to take 15 or more credits a semester, since doing so does not cost any more than taking 12. The approach lets students save tuition money for each semester they take more than 12 credit hours, and they save on living expenses by completing their degree one or two semesters earlier. Examples of this approach exist on campuses in Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota. In Indiana, the changes took effect due to state legislation in 2013. Evaluation of the law, published one year later, showed immediate increases in the numbers of students enrolling and completing 30 credit hours a year.[28] In New Mexico, practices vary by institution. Some schools offer banded tuition for students taking 12 or more credit hours; others offer a flat tuition for students taking 15 or more; others charge by the credit hour, regardless of number.[29]

Some states deploy another approach, credit caps, to promote on-time completion. These policies place a cap on the number credit hours required for degrees. Why? Even if students do take 15 credit hours a semester, many associate degrees cannot be completed in four semesters. Additionally, course pathways are not always clearly laid out by schools. To help address this issue, some states including Minnesota place caps on credit requirements, ensuring that associate degrees take no more than 60 credit hours and bachelors no more than 120. Opponents of credit caps argue that some degrees are more complex and simply require additional courses.

Credit for Prior Learning

College is not the only place people gain knowledge and skills. Some campuses offer credit for prior learning, such as work experience, employer training programs, military experience or community service. In 2016, the New Mexico Legislature passed Senate Bill 153, requiring state colleges and universities to provide appropriate academic credits to veterans and military personnel. Policies to implement this law are in development and may vary by institution. At least Santa Fe Community College, CNM, San Juan College and New Mexico Junior College offer credit for prior learning. Nationally, the Council for Adult and Experimental Learning offers resources and quality standards on granting college credit from life experiences.[30]

Soft Skills

Increasingly, community colleges teach workforce readiness skills, also known as “soft skills.” These can include phone etiquette, customer service and reliability. Social traits, too, such as empathy, adaptability, cultural awareness and curiosity are increasingly important to job success and sought by employers.[31] For example, multiple degree plans offered by Navajo Tech specifically list soft skills among their learning goals.[32]

Adult Education

The HED’s Adult Education Program assists adults, including parents and English Learners, to become literate and obtain the knowledge and skills necessary for employment and economic self-sufficiency. In 2017, the programs served 12,755 students through 27 programs in the state. The programs aim to provide instructional services for educationally disadvantaged adults. Participant are eligible if they: lack sufficient mastery of basic educational skills to function effectively in society; do not have a high school diploma or its equivalent; or are unable to speak, read, or write the English language fluently.[33]

Related, the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training Program (I-BEST) is a nationally recognized model that boosts student literacy and work skills. It enables students to study exactly what they need to complete their chosen certificate program. The program connects students with support systems including a cohort of peers as well as a team of advisors and teachers.[34]

Remedial or Developmental Courses

In New Mexico, almost 40 percent of high school graduates who enroll in our state colleges are not academically prepared and must take remedial courses to catch up. Many of these students are low-income or people of color. The classes, also called developmental or “sub-college” courses, most commonly address math and English (which includes reading, writing and comprehension). The remedial courses are intended to get students caught up so they may start earning college credit. However, remediation is often described as the “black hole” of college, creating a costly barrier that some students never get past. Others advance a little farther in their education, but do not complete a certificate or degree. Along the way, these students often accumulate debt that can difficult to repay since their college investment does not necessarily lead to higher earnings.

Many education experts have called for new ways to get students into the actual “gateway” classes (such as freshman English or algebra) that are required for the rest of their courses. In New Mexico, the HED has encouraged all campuses to research alternative remediation models, select one that might work for their faculty and students, and test it. Faculty at CNM report positive academic results with a paired-course model for freshman English. In 2015, UNM largely discontinued its remedial education through the introduction of stretch and instructional learning time models. 

In 2016, the New Mexico English Remediation Task Force released the following recommendations:

  1. Use multiple measures (placement tests, high school GPA, diagnostic essays) to place incoming students.
  2. Offer accelerated corequisite courses to move most developmental students into college-level writing courses with additional support.
  3. Continue traditional remedial courses but increase student support to move them more quickly into college-level composition.
  4. Implement or support existing “early alert” systems to support struggling students.
  5. Support writing centers to serve students.
  6. Create a statewide system for sharing resources and reporting data in a more accessible manner.[35]

These recommendations have not been officially adopted statewide, but are being considered on a case-by-case basis on campuses.

Corequisite Models

New Mexico is part of a national organization, Complete College America, that advances “corequisite” approaches to remedial education. These approaches allow under-prepared students to enroll directly in college level gateway classes, but provide additional academic support at the same time. Some schools, including all the campuses in the California State University system and the state colleges in Tennessee, have stopped offering remedial classes entirely. In Tennessee, after one semester of corequisite remediation, 64 percent of students passed the connected gateway math course.[36] This rate is quite high, compared with standard remediation approaches nationally, in which 22 percent of students with remedial needs complete a gateway math course in two years.

Common approaches include:[37]

  • Paired-course or models (students take the developmental and gateway classes in the same semester, often taught by the same instructor in back-to-back courses)
  • Extended instructional time (additional classroom instruction added to a specially designed gateway course, sometimes with one additional credit)
  • Stretch models (a one-semester course gets stretched to two)
  • Accelerated learning model (similar to paired-course models, but students take the developmental course in a small class and join with college-level students in the gateway course)
  • Academic support service models (students enroll in the regular gateway class but are required to take part in support services like tutoring or instructor office hours)
  • Technology-mediated support models (students enroll in a gateway class – usually comprised entirely of other developmental education students – and they take a separate online lab)

Other approaches attempt to reduce the number of students tracked into developmental education by assessing college readiness in multiple ways (instead of one placement test). Additional factors that can be considered include high school GPA, the number of years since the student was in school, or the number of relevant courses taken in high school. One study found that combining these assessment factors lowered remediation rates by eight percentage points in math and 12 in English, while maintaining or improving completion rates.[38]

Not everyone agrees with corequisite models, however. Some New Mexico educators worry about the accelerated pace being problematic for some students. [39] They fear that students without enough foundational skills will be unsuccessful in a corequisite course model. Some educators believe the standard remediation courses may be a better fit for some nontraditional students who are returning the classroom after several years away from school. Nationally, concerns exist around faculty development and workloads, as well as how to determine if a student should be eligible for corequisite education.[40] Faculty in California strongly protested remediation reforms, fearing they would lead to reduced academic standards overall.[41]

Competency-Based Education

Competency-based education (CBE) offers another tool to reducing the need for remedial coursework and moving students toward their academic goals more quickly. The approach can also be used with regular courses. It enables learners to move ahead at their own pace when they demonstrate mastery of the intended skills. It can be used at high school and college levels. For example, a typical college course takes 15 weeks. If a student placement test demonstrates proficiency in all but one of required skills, a CBE model can let the student learn that one skill in perhaps two or three weeks, and then move on to additional coursework.

The content is generally offered online, and timing is more flexible than traditional courses. The Lumina Foundation, a national education policy organization, identified CBE as a particularly promising strategy for reducing inequity in higher education. By measuring what students know, rather than whether they completed a particular class, schools may enable learners to move forward in their education more quickly. The programs often offer customized content coupled with a “high-touch” approach to the online instruction (i.e., significant contact with online instructors). As a result, CBE potentially enables busy students to advance their education while meeting family and job obligations.[42] The foundation points to several priority opportunities for CBE application:

  • Targeted programs for developmental or remedial education
  • Overall certificate and degree programs from community colleges or universities
  • New forms of credentials, such as microcredentials and digital badges
  • Workforce training programs, ideally targeted to occupations in high growth areas (i.e., computer science) or high need (i.e., frontline community workers)

Concerns exist about CBE, however.[43] Some educators worry that students who take a lot of courses through a CBE model miss out on the rich learning environment that occurs in a traditional classroom. Part of college, they say, is the campus environment. Students in CBE courses are less likely to learn from their peers or engage in dynamic classroom discussion that dissects a subject thoroughly. The CBE courses are more likely to focus on skills rather than disciplines or ideas. As a result, it appears a CBE model works better for some subjects than others. Issues also exist with paying for the courses, since federal financial aid models are designed around the assumption of traditional credit hours. Financial aid does not pay for “correspondence courses”, so institutions must design the CBE courses to be more hands-on. Currently the U.S. Department of Education limits the number and type of CBE courses that can be paid for via financial aid.

These concerns point to potential needs for policies and procedures, particularly around quality standards and student-faculty interaction. Currently, CNM is the only public New Mexico college with a CBE program approved by the Higher Learning Commission. The application took six months to approve.

Case Study: Western Governors Unversity

The nonprofit, online Western Governor’s University is probably the best-known provider of CBE. It offers degrees, each with a set of “domains” and “sub-domains” that specify competencies the student must demonstrate. Students progress by passing assessments associated with their degrees. Assessments can include problem-solving assignments, standardized exams, essays, projects and research papers. Faculty mentors support the process. Students are admitted to the online school on a monthly basis and work their way through each competency at their own pace. Students who already possess certain competencies may accelerate their program either by transferring in credits from other colleges or taking assessments. Tuition is charged at a flat rate for each six-month term, during which students may complete as many competencies as they can. The more they complete each term, the less costly their degree becomes.[44]

Student Case Study: Community College Pathway

Chamisa Edmo – Pre-Engineering, Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute

Breaking into STEM fields was a challenge for Chamisa Edmo, one shared by other Native American students. In Chamisa’s case, guidance counselors at her first college “didn’t know a lot about the different programs offered. So I picked American Indigenous Studies (AIS). I wasn't that interested, but it’s what was available.” She expanded her interests and is now in her last trimester at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI), set to receive an associate’s degree in pre-engineering. At SIPI she has felt supported and has taken advantage of multiple learning opportunities through the school. Her combined AIS degree and engineering focus will allow her to achieve her dream of working on tribal infrastructure projects.

Chamisa’s education and background have given her a unique perspective that values tribal issues being solved by individuals from the local community. She recommends that institutions, professors and students work together to overcome tribal student barriers to higher education including empowering students to practice self-advocacy and training faculty to better engage native students. She also suggests that providing students with project-based learning curriculum related to native community issues and opportunities to interact with Native American engineers offer impactful ways to support Native American STEM students in particular. Chamisa has bright vision for her future: “So many of my ideas are based on tribal students, and how to bring STEM to them. It’s going to be powerful no matter what I do.”

Intersections and Conclusion

Community college students can benefit from the possibilities of shorter spans in college, less student debt and concrete career credentials to move them into the workplace. However, they can also face significant challenges that hinder students’ abilities to complete their degree or certification. What changes might New Mexico high schools, colleges or policymakers enact that would enable more students to navigate this path successfully? This chapter illustrates opportunities to strengthen high school preparation, both in academics and career options. It also points to potential reforms in college remediation and competency-based education. All these issues overlap with student success at four-year schools as well, presented in Chapter 2. Additionally, the direct workforce application of many community college degree or certificate programs tie to the workforce alignment discussions in Chapters 4, 5 and 6. An integrated consideration of the needs of community colleges and their students can reveal opportunities to strength New Mexico’s future.



[1] (Higher Education Department, 2017)

[2] (ACS 2016)

[3] (HED, 2014)

[4] (Georgetown University, 2013)

[5] (HED, 2014) Note: This dataset does not include certificates of achievement that can be completed in less than one year.

[6] These concerns are not limited to New Mexico families. Nationally, parents worry about their children pursing technical training instead of the traditional 4-year college path, according to Georgetown’s Anthony Carnevale. (Sanchez, 2016))

[7] (Strata Education Network)

[8] (U.S. Congress, Joint Economic Committee, Foundation for Economic Success, 2017)

[9] (PED)

[10] (LESC, 2018)

[11] (San Juan College)

[12] (LFC, 2017)

[13] (LFC, 2017)

[14] (LFC, 2017)

[15] (Bridge of Southern New Mexico, 2017) 

[16] (Education Commission of the States, 2016) 

[17] (PED, 2017)

[18] (HED) 

[19] (Rudnick, 2017) 

[20] (ACT, 2017)

[21] (New Mexico Kids Can, 2018; ACT 2017)

[22] The time to complete a degree is based on 15 credits a semester. Most students take longer to complete education.

[23] (100,000 Opportunities)

[24] (Social Science Research Council)

[25] (Harvard Business Review, Year Up, Innovate Educate, Corps Network)

[26] (American Council on Education)

[27] (Complete College America)

[28] (Indiana Commission for Higher Education, 2015)

[29] Regarding tuition in general, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich introduced legislation this month to provide two years of tuition-free access to community or technical college programs that lead to a degree or industry-recognized credential.

[30] (Council for Adult and Experimental Learning)

[31] (NMDWS. New Mexico Employer Survey, February 2014)

[32] (Navajo Tech, 2016)

[33] (HED Annual Report, 2017)

[34] (Santa Fe Community College)

[35] (NM English Remediation Task Force, 2016)

[36] (Complete College America)

[37] (LESC, 2017; Daugherty, 2017)

[38] (U.S. Department of Education, 2017)

[39] (NM English Remediation Task Force, 2016)

[40] (California Acceleration Project)

[41] (Zinshteyn, 2017)

[42] (Lumina Foundation, 2017)

[43] (Chen, 2017; Gunthorpe, 2017)

[44] (Chen, 2017)

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