Editors Note below

NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – According to the official enrollment report from the University of New Mexico, spring 2021 enrollment at the school reached a five-year low. At Central New Mexico Community College (CNM), fall 2020 enrollment hit a thirteen-year low, according to data provided by CNM. And New Mexico State University (NMSU) had over 2,000 fewer students in spring of 2021, compared to spring of 2018, according to NMSU data.

Yet it’s not only New Mexico that has seen a decrease in students. A June 10, 2021 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center says colleges across the country saw 603,000 fewer students in the spring of 2021 compared to the previous year.

The national report cites COVID-19-related disruptions as a key cause of the decline. But here in New Mexico, enrollment rates have been dropping for years. So what’s behind the trend?

“Bad economic times typically drive more students to go to college,” says Dan Garcia, UNM’s vice president for enrollment management. When there are good jobs to be had, college may not seem necessary, he explains. And “speaking broadly, maybe the last five years, we’ve seen improvements in economic conditions up until the time of the pandemic,” he says. So, declining enrollment “probably correlates somewhat with economic conditions in the state improving.”

Yet while UNM’s overall enrollment was down, the school did see “substantial increases in new students choosing to come to school in the fall, which did surprise us a little bit,” Garcia says. In fact, there were more first-year applicants in 2020 than in 2019 or 2018, UNM data shows.

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Data from UNM shows that there were more first-year applicants during the pandemic than in recent years. Graphic from UNM.

The pandemic certainly had an impact on the overall enrollment decline, Garcia says. He points to several factors, including remote learning: “For a number of students, they were just getting a bit fatigued with all of the online learning,” he says. Some students seem to adapt well to online class, he adds, but some don’t and may choose not to re-enroll following a semester of virtual class.

UNM, of course, wasn’t the only college dealing with online learning. The drawbacks of remote learning were especially clear for courses that are traditionally hands-on, says Tracy Hartzler, the president of CNM.

“We’ve continued to be open, but we’ve had to do so with restricted settings, so we haven’t been able to have a full welding class. We haven’t been able to have a full nursing class the way we have before,” she says. “Limits on capacity — because of social distancing — also impacted how we could offer programming.”

Of the colleges in New Mexico, CNM has seen the largest absolute drop in fall enrollment over the last ten years, according to data from the New Mexico Higher Education Department. The main campus is down more than 6,000 students compared to 2010’s count. UNM, for comparison, is down a little over 5,000 students compared to 2010, the data shows.

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Not all of New Mexico’s colleges saw enrollment decrease over the last decade, but CNM and UNM saw several thousand fewer students in fall of 2020 compared to 2010. Data from NMHED.

Hartzler says she’s concerned that many students haven’t been able to get the education they need from colleges like CNM due to the pandemic. But she says that the enrollment numbers do highlight some potential good news.

Statewide policy change towards developmental education “means that we have students completing their degree faster, and they’re taking fewer courses,” Hartzler explains. “Many years ago, it was a pretty long journey for students to get to the point where they were then earning those programming credits.” The policy adjustments “radically changed our enrollment,” she adds.

The numbers may show lower enrollment, but perhaps it’s for the right reasons, she says. These are “changes that help our students get into college, get into the program of their choice, and get out faster.”

As the pandemic continues to ease in New Mexico, colleges are looking forward to returning to more in-person learning. But both Hartzler from CNM and Garcia from UNM say some pandemic-induced measures will continue.

“We’ve learned some lessons that will carry forward, because we realize that they help our students and our community really continue to make progress on their goals, even if they slow down their pace of enrollment,” Hartzler says. This fall, CNM’s offerings will be about 40% face-to-face and 60% online, she adds. Garcia says that UNM has scheduled about 80% of their classes as face-to-face for the upcoming fall semester.

New Mexico State University, which was down a little over 4,000 students in 2020 compared to 2010, is planning to have roughly one third of classes face-to-face, one third virtual, and one third as a mix of virtual and face-to-face, says Renay M. Scott, the vice president of student success. Freshman, she notes, seem particularly eager to have in-person experiences.

“We’re looking to have a good freshman class,” she says. They “are pretty excited about getting back to what I’ll call a traditional college experience.”

But for the students that will have online classes, she says NMSU has been working hard to increase accessibility for students using Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) funding. In the long run, she says, that should pay off in terms of enrollment and student performance.

“We invested some of our CARES money into hiring more graduate students to perform a TA role,” she says. This second set of hands allows teachers to better manage the complexities of online teaching, she explains. On top of that, “we really ramped up online tutoring.”

Scott acknowledges that it’s not only the efforts of teachers that have kept students enrolled and engaged during the pandemic. She also praises the efforts of the students who have adapted to challenging conditions.

“The thing I think that became brutally clear to us was the technology access divide,” she says. “Depending on what rural parts of the state they lived in, it may be a drive to get to McDonald’s for internet access for example.” But students made it work.

“Believe it or not, I had some students writing papers on their phone,” she recalls. “They’re my heroes. I mean, they found a way to persevere.”

And of course, it’s not only the challenges of online learning that likely impacted enrollment. The cost of attendance probably played a role as well. “We certainly know that it costs a lot for an individual to come to school,” says Hartzler from CNM. But NMSU, CNM, and UNM say there is a significant amount of aid money available to students.

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Financial Aid Offices

Enrolling has “been a struggle, particularly for families that have been out of work,” Garcia from UNM says. But, “we have $28 million that we’re going to be distributing to students very shortly to help offset the costs incurred for educational expenses.”

CNM distributed over $30 million in grants and scholarships from 2019 to 2020, according to data provided by the school. And Hartzler says they’re using federal and state aid to fund both degree programs and skill-training programs.

Vandeen McKenzie, NMSU’s director of financial aid told KRQE in an email that “each academic year, the NMSU system processes approximately $150 Million in federal, state, institutional aid and scholarships.” And that the maximum Pell grant amount available for the 2021-2022 academic year increased by $150, McKenzie adds.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said UNM’s enrollment is down a little over 5,000 student compared to 2020. This date has been corrected to 2010; During editing, info about a June 10, 2021 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center was removed in error. It has been added back in.