Increasingly, New Mexico college students do not fit the traditional image of the newly minted high school graduate who goes straight into college with relatively modest responsibilities. The fact is, we have more nontraditional students than ever before – students who are older, work jobs, and support families. Some are returning to school for retraining. In addition, our “traditional” students often assume financial burdens and other responsibilities for themselves or their families. Most New Mexico students are going to school and working to pay for school and living expenses. Many are first-generation college students overcoming barriers with courage and tenacity.
These students and others may wonder, what is the main purpose of higher education? The answer depends on whom you ask. For parents, college means self-sufficient children who get good jobs. For freshman, college is a time to explore and learn. Working parents often see education as a chance at a better financial future for their families, while educators may focus on the research opportunities their university affords. Employers want colleges to prepare skilled workers, at the same time policymakers wish for trimmed budgets, and communities look to universities for entertainment through athletics and the arts. Increasingly, higher education leaders are called on to manage the needs and expectations of different populations in an ever-expanding mission – and with ever-declining dollars.
Regardless what the colleges and universities focus on, today’s graduates are tomorrow’s workforce. Throughout the state, there are examples of higher education institutions and industries successfully working together to train and educate students so they may meet today’s and tomorrow’s workforce needs. The healthcare and energy sectors are two of our state’s most promising higher-paying industries. Hundreds of job vacancies exist in these sectors, but unfortunately, New Mexico does not have enough qualified residents to fill the positions. At the same time, New Mexico is producing a high volume of post-secondary education graduates, many of whom unfortunately remain in our state underemployed, or who leave the state for better economic opportunities. Between the abundance of available jobs and lots of graduates, it becomes clear that more can be done to align the two. Tension also remains between whether institutions should focus more on singular job-based training versus the agiler transferable skills such as critical thinking.
This town hall presents the opportunity for higher education professionals, students, community members and policy leaders to define what it means to go to college in our state and make the promise of higher education a reality. Our meeting will be organized into six discussion groups, which correspond to the chapters of this report:
Group 5: Healthcare workforce needs
Group 6: Energy workforce needs
Results from these discussions will be published in late Spring 2018, a separate report for New Mexicans.