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

CH 2: Exceling at Four-Year Degrees and Beyond

Student Success at University

Ask people to visualize success in college, and many imagine caps, gowns and the loud sound systems of graduations. It is a nice image, and yet academic achievement begins years before students parade to strains of Pomp and Circumstance. The New Mexicans who complete university degrees have overcome financial hurdles, family challenges and, usually, held one or more jobs at the same time. Most of our graduates are women, and the majority of New Mexicans who complete college are either Hispanic or Native American. Regardless of gender or ethnicity, our students – and others around the country – want to succeed in the workplace but often lack information that might help them select majors that can lead to jobs here at home. This chapter focuses on academic success for all college students, especially those pursing university degrees. That said, many of the issues discussed apply also to community college students.    

Key Considerations

How can New Mexico ensure that students who begin college actually finish? To what degree are we meeting the needs of underserved populations, and how can we do better? How can we help our students get the financial aid they need, and then successfully pay off their student loans? And how can we ensure high-impact learning for all students – especially for those who may not know how to seek out these rich experiences?

Figure 5: College retention, Four Corners states, 2015

University Success Data

Recruit. Retain. Complete. These three goals drive many activities in universities. The goals are more than just numeric metrics; underneath the numbers lie opportunities to both honor good work and identify potential improvements.


Roughly 32 percent of New Mexicans ages 18-24 are enrolled in college, so one statewide priority is increasing that number.[1] Additionally, postsecondary enrollment has declined across the board, affecting both universities and community colleges. The number of enrolled students in New Mexico declined by over 21,000 between 2010 and 2016.[2]


In addition to wanting more students to enroll in college, school leaders and policymakers track how well universities retain students beyond their freshman year. This is a key predictor of future academic success. Among students in four-year schools, New Mexico retains about 72 percent of our incoming freshman into their second year.[3] In 2015, for example, over 37,000 New Mexico students left college before their sophomore year. We rank below the national average of 80 percent, and far below the top state, California, where almost 87 percent of college freshman continue their schooling. Figure 5 compares New Mexico with our Four Corners neighbors, illustrating that all these western states struggle with this measure, none surpassing the national average.


The number of New Mexico students graduating with bachelors, graduate and professional degrees has remained reasonably steady in recent years, with modest declines in the last two years. As noted in Chapter 1, these are the same years the state saw increases in the numbers of associate degrees and certificates.

Figure 6: College completion rates by race/ethnicity,compared with demographic breakdowns, 2016-2017
Figure 7: Number of university degrees awarded in New Mexico, 2012-2016

Given the culturally diverse nature of New Mexico’s population, researchers also consider college graduation rates by race and ethnicity. Figure 6 illustrates that the percentage of New Mexico’s completion rates (including certificates), roughly mirrors the racial/ethnic breakdowns of the state as a whole. For example, 48 percent of the state’s population is Hispanic, compared with about 46 percent of total college completions. The largest gap between completions and the proportion of the population is New Mexico’s Native Americans, with a difference of four percentage points. (See Appendix B for details on degree types by ethnicity.) National research points to the importance of continuing to provide tailored support to underserved populations in order to increase college completion. Georgetown data reveals that Latinos across the nation have increased their share of good jobs, but still benefit from solid college and career counseling. [4]

Gender Gap

Perhaps the most surprising achievement gap facing New Mexico and the nation is that many more women complete college than men. Three of every five New Mexico degrees or certificates go to women, compared with four of five nationally.[5] The disparity has been steadily growing for years. The pattern begins at enrollment, and extends across all types of degrees, as noted in Figure 8. Nationally, the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance aims to address achievement gaps facing boys and young men of color. This report’s previous chapter offered potential benefits of increased vocational training, which is one possible strategy for closing the college completion gap. Additional strategies include increased mentorship as well as strong counseling and support during the transition from high school to college for young men and boys.[6] The fact that boys sometimes have less developed social skills than their female peers can contribute to challenges adapting to college.[7]

Some suggest that demographic gaps in graduation rates may be better identified and addressed by simultaneously intersecting race, ethnicity, gender and class variables together.[8] For example using this multi-intersection process, it has been shown that while more women are graduating than men, low-income Hispanic women are less likely to graduate than high-income White women.

Figure 8: N.M. certificates and degrees, by award type and gender, 2016-2017
Figure 9: N.M. certificates and degrees, by gender, 2016-2017

Informed Decision-Making

In Chapter 1, this report addressed some of the information challenges students may face when deciding whether to pursue trade certifications, associate degrees or university degrees. For students who select the university track, equally challenging decisions arise about college majors. Employers sometimes worry about students’ apparent lack of “career literacy” and limited knowledge of professional options including typical salaries for different fields. Students, particularly young women and men of color, might benefit from the following types of information:

  • Of the 10 college majors with the best starting salaries, nine are engineering degrees (i.e., mechanical, nuclear, computer, chemical engineering). [9]
  • The top college majors that lead to personal satisfaction, measured by the percentage of graduates who find their work meaningful: nursing, special education, medical technology, engineering (biomedical and petroleum), athletic training, social work, child and family studies, dietetics, biblical studies/theology, public health, elementary education, health sciences and biology.[10]
  • The most in-demand bachelor’s degree occupations in New Mexico include registered nurses, K-12 teachers, health services fields, management and administration jobs, social workers, medical lab techs, computer and software development, financial and loan advisors.[11]

The types of information above addresses earnings, quality of life, and which types of jobs are in-demand. One of the largest national surveys of college consumers found that just over half would change at least one college decision: their major, their higher education institution, or their degree level. [12] These findings point to the value of career exploration before getting too far along in college. This matter is further addressed in Chapter 4.

Financing College to Support Completion

No matter what fields students find interesting, rising costs of higher education can make college seem impossible, especially for low-income students. In some cases, costs are the barrier; in other cases, families’ lack of understanding of financial aid options makes the perceptions of costs the primary barrier. Low-income students may opt not to enroll in college because the perceived expenses are too high. Given that one in five New Mexicans live in poverty, and even middle-income earners bring home less than the $47,000, financing college is a major challenge for many families. [13]

Figure 10: Percent change in tuition compared with other family expenses

Meanwhile, state government support of New Mexico’s higher education system – like other states – diminished in the decade since the Great Recession. Per student spending fell more than 30 percent during that period, and has not yet returned to pre-recession levels.[14] Despite these decreases, New Mexico continues to spend more on higher education, per capita, than most states.[15] Like much of the nation, New Mexico’s tuition rates continue to rise, increasing for universities by 35 percent since 2010.[16] (See Appendix C for historical tuition data in New Mexico.)

Nationally, tuition costs have increased at a far larger rate than other family expenses, illustrated in Figure 10. Federal Pell Grants subsidize college for students with financial need. The maximum award amount changes yearly, and in the 2015-2016 academic year was $5,775. Students may quality if their total family income is $50,000 a year or less – as is the case with most New Mexicans. Most Pell Grant money goes to students with a total family income below $20,000.[17] The portion of tuition covered by the Pell Grant has not kept pace with rising tuition costs, however. It currently pays the lowest proportion in history and less than half of what it covered in 1980.[18](See Chapter 3 for more information on financial aid.)

Complications of Financial Aid Systems

Regardless what portion it covers, Pell Grants and other forms of financial aid play an important role in helping students and families pay for college. More than eight in ten college students nationally receive at least some financial aid.[19] Undocumented students are not eligible for federal financial aid but may apply for state-funded student financial aid in our state.[20] Navigating the financial aid process presents significant challenges for all families, regardless their income level. One recent report, issued by the Jack Kent Cook Foundation, offers very concrete recommendations to academic institutions:[21]

  • Clarify financial aid letters, which often lump together scholarship and loan information in confusing ways. The format varies considerably between institutions, creating difficulty for families trying to compare offers between schools. The U.S. Department of Education developed a standard “Financial Aid Shopping Sheet” and asked colleges and universities to adopt for their financial aid letters. Over 3,000 institutions have obliged.
  • Provide families a four-year cost estimate, to support financial planning and encourage students to complete their degrees on time.
  • Establish clear policies about financial aid requirements, including what actions (i.e., bad grades or missed deadlines) might cause a student to lose their aid. Issue reminders about key dates.
  • Maintain grant or scholarship levels for the duration of students’ academic program. Some colleges offer enticement scholarships to get students to enroll, but those awards only last a year. Or others do not extend for the entire four years.
  • Educate faculty about low-cost textbooks, including open-license materials. Assign a committee to coordinate activities to reduce textbook costs. The average cost of textbooks rose 73 percent in the last decade.
  • Create emergency aid programs, such as campus food vouchers, short-term loans, food pantries or completion scholarships to help students get through difficult times. One study of California students found that about a fourth had to choose between buying food or paying for education and housing costs.
  • Make available information on social services such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps, or the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Such information can be particularly helpful to students whose financial aid forms indicate “no expected family contribution” to tuition costs.

The nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children also advocates tapping social programs to make college more affordable for low-income families. For example, the federally funded Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grant aims to help low-income parents and pregnant women achieve economic self-sufficiency. Funds may be used to pay for vocational training, college tuition and child care assistance.

Lottery Scholarship

New Mexico community college and university students benefit from a unique program. The Lottery Scholarship generally applies to New Mexico high school graduates who enroll full-time at an in-state college or university within 16 months of graduation and maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average. [22] The funds apply to tuition only, not textbooks or living expenses. Under a new law passed earlier this year, the award amounts are determined annually based in part on lottery earnings. Target amounts include: $1,500 per semester for students enrolled at research universities; $1,020 per semester for student enrolled at comprehensive universities; and $380 per semester for student enrolled in community college.[23] The Lottery Scholarship may not be used at tribal colleges. Since its establishment in 1996, over 116,000 students have received the lottery scholarship.[24] However, critics note that the program is merit-based rather than need-based, and it leaves out adults who wish to return to college after entering the workforce.[25]

College Affordability Fund

In part to address the concerns above, the New Mexico Legislature established the College Affordability Fund in 2005. It provides support, currently up to $1,000 per semester, for students of any age who lack other financial resources and do not meet the age or academic requirements of the Lottery Scholarship. Students must be New Mexico residents, and enroll at least half-time as undergraduates a public college, university or tribal college located in the state.[26] The program has served about 3,000-5,000 people per year and provided roughly 50,000 scholarships over the existence of the fund.[27]

However, without legislative intervention, FY18 will be last year students may apply for these dollars. When the fund was established, the intention was to appropriate $2 million a year until enough dollars accrued to support an endowment fund to finance the annual scholarships. However, budget shortfalls prompted the legislature to repeatedly deplete the fund to cover other state expenses. Lawmakers did not approve a new appropriation for the fund during the last legislative session, so the final $1.5 million will be spent on scholarships this year. 

Money Management and Student Debt

Money management can present major challenges for college students, who are juggling major expenses (tuition, textbooks, living expenses) while not earning much income. It is easy to rack up both credit card debt and student loan debt during this time. Student loans can provide essential resources to make college possible, but some students are unable to pay them back – in many cases because they did not finish college and thus are not earning high enough salaries to repay their debt. New Mexico students actually leave college with lower-than-average debt burdens (about $19,000 on average, compared with about $29,000 nationally).[28] However, we have the worst student loan default rate in the country, at 19 percent. [29]

The majority of public and private loans go to students in bachelor’s, graduate and professional degree programs. (Most community college students do not “over-borrow” and many do not take out loans at all.[30]) Strategies to reduce default can be directed to schools and students directly, or to state and federal policymakers.

Recommendations for students and graduates (which could be facilitated by their colleges) include:[31]

  1. Taking a money management course (such as New Mexico State University’s “Red to Green” program that teaches about budgets, credit scores and loan debt)
  2. Making more than the minimum payment
  3. Knowing the pay-off date and working to move it closer (many students have no idea the pay-off date and how much interest accrues if they use the maximum time to repay their loan)
  4. Consolidating or refinancing student loans
  5. Making a lump-sum payment when the borrower comes into extra money
  6. Taking a job that makes the borrower eligible for loan forgiveness
  7. Using any raises to increase student loan payments
  8. Cutting personal spending and increasing your loan payments
  9. Working a side job and using the extra income to repay loans

Recommendations for lenders include:[32]

  1. Making the 56 different repayment options and programs easier to understand and less cumbersome
  2. Stopping promotion of refinance options with lower payments over longer periods; these programs should not be the default option for most graduates since they extend both the loan period and the long-term interest
  3. Encouraging borrowers to communicate with their lender if they are having trouble, rather than just default

Broader policy recommendations offered by the Institute for College Access and Success include:[33]

  1. Increasing access to need-based student aid (Pell Grants, financial aid process, higher education tax benefits)
  2. Simplifying federal student loans and better target subsidies
  3. Collecting better data on student debt and outcomes
  4. Protecting students and taxpayers from colleges that overcharge and underdeliver
  5. Strengthening policies to prevent waste, fraud and abuse

The ideas above apply primarily to federal loans. A small amount of student loans in New Mexico – just one percent – come from the state. These “loan for service” programs support in-demand careers like teachers, healthcare professionals or social workers. The default rate for these programs is very low. These loans totaled $2.9 million and supported 245 students in 2017.[34]

Strategies for University Success

University students succeed in school when they are well equipped before they arrive, so all the high school preparedness strategies presented in Chapter 1 (i.e., dual credit, career pathways, Next Step Plans) apply here. Once students get to college, research points to several high-impact learning strategies that lead to success for all students, and especially for underserved populations. The following activities, all of which already take place to some degree in New Mexico, can be advanced by colleges and universities and often rely on appropriations from state legislatures. Proven strategies include: [35]

  1. First-year experiences, including seminars or freshmen programs, bring students together with faculty regularly. Mandatory office hours with one faculty member can also support strong transitions to college.
  2. Learning communities encourage integration of ideas across courses, connecting students with peers and making coursework relevant.
  3. Writing-intensive courses are essential at all levels of instruction, including writing for different audiences.
  4. Collaborative assignments and projects help students learn to work and solve problems with others, while also sharpening their ability to honestly consider other perspectives.
  5. Undergraduate research is not just for science majors anymore; students from all disciplines benefit from this proven critical learning activity.
  6. Diversity and global learning includes courses and programs that help students explore cultures and worldviews different than their own.
  7. ePortfolios enable students to collect work over time, reflect on their growth, and then share selected items electronically with faculty or future employers.
  8. Service learning experiences provide important opportunities for project-based experiential learning, and are particularly effective with they combine real-world setting with classroom reflection.
  9. Internships provide another form of experiential learning and tie directly to career goals.
  10. Capstone courses and projects are culminating experiences that require students nearing the end of college to create a project that integrates or applies what they learned across their degree program.

The point of listing these items is not to imply that New Mexico colleges do not offer these experiences. They do. However, in many cases, these opportunities go to higher achievers and the students who know to seek them out. They are not necessarily deployed in a systematic way, and often are not specifically targeted to the underserved populations – including first generation and nontraditional students – who could most benefit from these high-impact learning strategies.

Online Courses

With ever-tightening budget concerns, talk often turns to online courses as a lower cost solution for delivering instruction. The strategy applies to both community college and university students. These types of classes work well for some students, less so for others. For some students, a mix of online and in-person classes can offer flexibility and increase the likelihood of finishing a degree or certificate on time. However, given that “soft skills” (i.e., collaboration, communication) are so essential to success in the workplace, it is likely that in-person coursework will remain important.

When considering the needs of underserved populations in particular, there are both benefits and drawbacks of online models.[36] On the plus side, the individualized learning and flexible schedules of online courses can be helpful to students who are also juggling jobs and family obligations. Conversely, those very obligations can make it more difficult for online learners to maintain the strong personal discipline required for the online work. Additionally, online students do not get the one-on-one interaction with peers and professors that they would in a traditional classroom. In-person interaction can improve student performance by making it easier to identify then redirect a struggling student. Recent national research with a sample of 2,600 online learners indicated that non-native English speakers were more likely than native English-speakers to choose online classes for educational advancement. However, they were not more likely to complete them. Older, unemployed, white males were the most likely of any population to complete online courses.[37]

Teacher Colleges

Aside from continuing to strengthen higher education in general, New Mexico relies on our colleges and universities to prepare the next generation of qualified teachers. This college major is a key driver of our economic and educational success, and practically all the high school preparedness strategies described in Chapter 1 rely on effective teachers. To develop educators with the attributes of excellence, teacher preparation programs at colleges and universities must provide strong pedagogical training, effective student teaching experiences, as well as collection of data about teacher retention and teachers’ impact on student achievement.[38] Additionally, we must keep them in the profession. Across the country, almost half leave the field in their first five years.[39]

In New Mexico, the most recent data available (2017) indicates 673 education vacancies, the clear majority for teachers (as opposed to administrators, counselors or ancillary positions).[40] This number represents a 13 percent increase over 2016. Geographically, most of the vacancies were for schools in central and northwest New Mexico. In terms of discipline, most were for elementary and special education.

New Mexico is home to six universities with Teacher Education Programs (TEPs), including traditional undergraduate programs, graduate certification programs, and alternative licensure programs. In addition, several two-year institutions offer alternative licensure programs to individuals who already have a bachelor’s degree. Completion rates for teacher programs at all the four-year institutions decreased considerably over the last six years, except at Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU), where the number of graduates increased by 17 students in 2014-2015. Overall however, the trend is troubling. In 2009-2010, New Mexico schools graduated 1,073 teachers; in 2014-2015, the figure was 775, representing a 28 percent decrease.[41]

In addition to preparing the data above, the New Mexico Educator Vacancy Report also offered concrete recommendations for strengthening the teacher pool:

  1. Develop a comprehensive report to provide a clear picture of the supply and demand of education careers through 2030.
  2. Design a longitudinal study to determine the impact of “Educators Rising” programs established in New Mexico. (Educators Rising – formerly “Future Educators Association” – is a high school career and technical organization organized by New Mexico State University. Its clubs and career pathways programs can be found in high schools across New Mexico but it is not officially statewide.)
  3. Research the potential impact of incentive programs (e.g. loan forgiveness and scholarships) to attract and retain students to become highly qualified teachers in New Mexico, especially in high need areas.
  4. Develop and support programs for current educational assistants so that they may receive the proper training and certification necessary to become teachers, especially in special education.
  5. Support the “Grow Your Own Teachers” movements in New Mexico, like Educators Rising, at the state level by offering sustainable financial support for existing teachers to cultivate a new generation of teachers beginning with middle and high school students including students enrolled in the Career Technical Education Pathway for future educators.

New Mexico’s Legislative Education Study Committee (LESC) also prioritizes the issue of teacher preparation. In its most recent annual report, the LESC makes it clear that effective teacher preparation is the cornerstone of the education system.[42] The report spotlights global research of high-performing countries, in which teacher candidates are rigorously trained, similar to the way doctors are in the United States.[43] In addition, these countries use research-based systems that focus on the learning and development of the whole child. Teacher candidates are expected to publish in clinical journals, and senior teachers perform in-class coaching for beginning teachers, a process that usually spans two years and can last four years in some countries. Consideration of these types of ideas may help New Mexico and other states prepare the next generation of committed, high quality teachers.

A Note on Jargon

To the many educators and government authors who read this report, we offer a word of advocacy, urging you beware of jargon. It can present a considerable barrier to those aspiring to higher education – at the community college or university level. In preparing this report, the writing team encountered dozens of websites and brochures intended for high school and college students. They aimed to provide guidance for college and career, but were full of technical jargon that many people could not reasonably be expected to understand. Terms like post-secondary, paraprofessional, budget controls, award amounts, or FSA ID are rarely used in common speech.[44](See Appendix G for good and bad of examples of written communication on health careers.) Another glaring sample appears on the website for the federal TEACH grants. The page, intended to overview the program for new applicants, instead opens with the following 87-word run-on sentence:[45]

As required by the Budget Control Act of 2011 (the sequester law), any TEACH Grant that is first disbursed on or after Oct. 1, 2016, and before Oct. 1, 2017, must be reduced by 6.9 percent from the award amount for which a recipient would otherwise have been eligible; and any TEACH Grant that is first disbursed on or after Oct. 1, 2017, and before Oct. 1, 2018, must be reduced by 6.6 percent from the award amount for which a recipient would otherwise have been eligible.

We rest our case on jargon.

Student Case Study: Success in Joint Bachelor’s/Master’s Program

Allie Arning: New Mexico Tech, Senior in Environmental Engineering

Allie Arning wanted to pursue a career in environmental sustainability, but was concerned that her math skills were not strong enough to succeed in STEM classes. As a high school student, Allie took the initiative and sought math tutoring and enrolled in summer school. The added support and guidance through tutoring and summer school gave her the opportunity to catch-up and prove to herself that her career goals were not out of reach.

Allie is now a senior at New Mexico Tech, poised to graduate from a 5-year combination bachelor’s of science and master’s in environmental engineering. She especially enjoys hands-on time in the lab, as well as learning from faculty who are enthusiastic about the subject matter they are teaching. While Allie benefitted from her family’s emotional support and on-campus resources, she ultimately credits much of her academic success to receiving tutoring early in college that gave her the confidence to stay the course in STEM. For students who doubt their ability she encourages them to speak up! “As soon as you have a question ask it. As soon as you need help, pursue it.”

Intersections and Conclusion

Fundamentally, this chapter offers reasons to be optimistic about New Mexico’s future as well as challenges to overcome. Supporting students from all walks of life to succeed in college remains a top priority across the state. That success can include informed decision-making by students and their families, clear and navigable information on financial aid and loans, as well as compelling and well-delivered coursework. Statewide, our future also relies on a well-prepared core of effective K-12 teachers, many of whom are educated in our state’s universities. Much of the content in this chapter applies equally to university and community college students, so it connects with important ideas in Chapter 1. Additionally, individual student finances are closely tied to state funding decisions, presented in Chapter 3. Community-members, educators, students and policymakers and others can all consider ways to strengthen these activities, pointing the way to smart higher education reforms.



[1] (NCHEMS, 2015)

[2] (HED)

[3] (NCHEMS, 2015)

[4] (Georgetown, 2014)

[5] (NCES)

[6] (My Brother’s Keeper, 2017)

[7] (Barron, 2016)

[8] (Lopez, 2018)

[9] (Somers, 2018)

[10] (Cutrone, 2012)

[11] (N.M. Department of Workforce Solutions, 2016)

[12] (Strata Education Network)

[13] (Census ACS, 2016)

[14] (Mitchell, 2017)

[15] (State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, 2015)

[16] (College Board, 2017)

[17] (

[18] (Reich, 2015)

[19] (NCES, 2015)

[20] (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2015; U.S. Department of Education, n.d.)

[21] (Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, 2017) 

[22] (HED)

[23] (New Mexico Legislature, SB 140, 2018)

[24] (New Mexico Lottery)

[25] (New Mexico Voices for Children, 2015)

[26] (HED)

[27] (Rommel, 2018)

[28] (TICAS, 2015)

[29] (Student Loan Report, 2017)

[30] (TICAS, 2014)

[31] (Trull, 2018); (NMSU)

[32] (Remondi, 2016)

[33] (TICAS)

[34] (HED, 2017)

[35] (LEAP, 2013)

[36] (Chen, 2018)

[37] (Stich, 2017)

[38] (President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2010)

[39] (NEA)

[40] (NM Educator Vacancy Report, 2017)

[41] (NM Educator Vacancy Report, 2017)

[42] (LESC Annual Report, 2018)

[43] (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2016)

[44] Note: The writers intentionally did not define FSA ID in the paragraph above to give readers a glimpse into students’ perspective. We found the acronym in multiple locations without definition. Even the federal page titled “What is a FSA ID?” does not say what it stands for. The answer: Financial Student Aid Identification Number.

[45] (U.S. Department of Education)

Won’t you please support New Mexico First?

Some of Our Sponsors