SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Here’s a question even the most educated are having trouble answering: Will college enrollment go up or down in New Mexico next year?

Community college and university officials said during a legislative hearing Tuesday they expected enrollment to increase just as it did during the 2008 recession. “As we look at these difficult budget decisions, I want us to take a look at what we saw, during and after the Great Recession of 2008. There was an enrollment increase within higher education,” Acting Higher Education Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez told legislators.

That would reverse a five-year drop in enrollment that’s coincided with declining tuition revenues even as tuition rates go up, according to legislative researchers. Rodriguez revealed preliminary data indicating that freshman enrollment among research universities was up 5% at state-funded New Mexico colleges this fall. But her agency did not release preliminary enrollment numbers for all college students.

While some officials predict more people will enroll in colleges because they lost jobs and are trying to switch professions or advance their careers, the fallout from the virus has caused many students to drop classes because they lack childcare or can no longer afford higher education.

Meanwhile, public high schools are shuttered across the state with students learning online. And grades for New Mexico high school students are down, with many schools reporting significant rises in the number of students failing classes. “I think, well, that’s got to impact graduation rates from our high schools, which has got to impact enrollment into higher ed,” said Republican Rep. Phelps Anderson during the Legislative Finance Committee hearing.

During the five years before the pandemic, enrollment in state schools declined by 13%, according to an October report by legislative researchers. Child public school enrollment is down about 4% in New Mexico, according to preliminary data published in November by the Public Education Department, which oversees K-12.

The numbers for child-age enrollment, which are traditionally released near the end of the year, were published early after requests from lawmakers and members of the media trying to understand the effects of the pandemic on school funding, which is based the number of kids in school.

The Higher Education Department is requesting $803.2 million for the state’s colleges, $24.5 million for state financial aid programs, $7 million for adult education, and $3.9 for operating costs. It oversees billions of dollars in tuition scholarships, including the lottery scholarship, which funds 4-year college tuition and the “opportunity scholarship,” which funds 2-year college tuition.

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