Campus Crusade

Santa Fe was on track to offer local students better access to four-year degrees—until things got all political

Four years, four schools, one location. That's the promotional tagline for Santa Fe Community College's proposed Higher Education Center, which will allow students to earn bachelor's degrees without leaving Santa Fe. There's only one catch: For months, SFCC has been blocked from actually building the center—and if the state has its way, the center may never be built at all.

In May, nearly 500 SFCC students crossed the stage to receive their diplomas. None of them earned a bachelor's degree, though; for that, they'll have to transfer to one of Santa Fe's private institutions (such as the Santa Fe University of Art and Design or St. John's College) or relocate to a city with a four-year public university, such as Albuquerque or Las Vegas.

For years, SFCC has been hoping to smooth the transition between community college graduates and bachelor's degree candidates. The Higher Education Center, which already has $12 million in funding from a bond initiative approved by voters in 2010, was intended to provide Santa Feans with a local, affordable, four-year degree option. Students would save an estimated $10,000 on tuition and be guaranteed a slot as a junior at one of SFCC's partner universities: the University of New Mexico, New Mexico Highlands University and the Institute for American Indian Arts. But in a political fracas that on May 15 escalated into a lawsuit, the HEC's future appears suddenly grim.

SFCC president Sheila Ortego says the college was blindsided last summer, when the state Higher Education Department refused to grant the center final approval. Not only had voters approved the bond funding, but the New Mexico Legislature had also green-lighted a sale of state land to SFCC—and NMHED, at the time under the leadership of former Gov. Bill Richardson, had rigorously analyzed the project and given it full approval.

But to make the Higher Education Center a reality, SFCC needed the state's approval on one last thing: the center's actual construction. Spokeswoman Janet Wise says the community college started asking NMHED for an up-or-down vote to approve construction in July 2011 "and did not get a response as time went on." In short, NMHED refused to consider it.

NMHED maintains that the college lacks a sufficiently long-term plan to support the center. (There is, however, a five-year financial plan.) In essence, state officials worry that the center will be costly—and that New Mexicans around the state will end up footing the bill.

"The taxpayers will be responsible for future expenditures if the learning center is not self-sustaining," NMHED Director of Operations Brigette Russell, who ran as a Republican challenger to state Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, in 2010 before going to work for the Gov. Susana Martinez administration, writes in an email to SFR. "SFCC has provided no information to date that it will in fact be self-sustaining."

Russell cites a section in the state Learning Center Act that requires legislative approval of new college institutions, branch campuses or off-campus instructional centers. She adds that the Legislature must also come up with ways to pay for these buildings.

But NMHED's position prompted state Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela, D-Santa Fe, vice chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, to seek Attorney General Gary King's opinion on the matter. Varela notes that Santa Fe's current public higher education opportunities fail to accommodate students seeking four-year degrees.

In a Dec. 20 advisory letter, King, a Democrat, wrote that, for a variety of reasons, the center didn't need legislative approval. One major point of contention is whether off-campus centers need legislative approval. King wrote that, although the Higher Education Center is located seven miles north of SFCC's main campus, it can't be considered off-campus because it wasn't initiated by a local school board.

Vince Ward, an attorney representing SFCC, adds that the state College District Tax Act requires only that NMHED consider the construction plans for the learning center.

"There is no legal requirement to punt this decision to the Legislature," Ward tells SFR.

In light of King's letter, the Legislature didn't consider the project during this year's general session. But NMHED held its ground, prompting the community college to finally file a lawsuit on May 15.

"[NMHED] references policy; that policy is changing," Ortego says. "But we believe, if you can't count on a previous administration's decisions and follow the law and the HED regulations that are in existence, that, as a society, we'd be in chaos."

NMHED, however, is now second-guessing the project based partly on reports that question whether the state's existing public higher-education facilities are fulfilling their mission. A 2010 report prepared by the state Legislative Council Service supports a moratorium on any new higher-education facilities, calling the current 60 such sites an "untenable" number, especially given New Mexico's poor graduation rates.

A December 2011 evaluation of the state's community colleges found that SFCC itself has a 9 percent three-year graduation rate—it typically takes two years to earn an associate's degree—compared to a 20 percent national average for community colleges. That seems to support the 2010 report's assertion that the state is currently "paying a substantial premium for low performance."

Adding fuel to the fire is a report published in May by the conservative Rio Grande Foundation, which points out that New Mexico spends more per citizen on higher education than any other state, yet graduates a smaller percentage of degree-seekers than all but four other states. Rio Grande Foundation President Paul Gessing says this suggests a need to re-evaluate the way the state spends higher education dollars and stop putting more money into new facilities.

"We've got an already-bloated system—do we need another entity within that system?" Gessing asks. "What, specifically, is it going to do that is not being done now, and if it's not being done now, could it be done without creating this new entity?"

A statistic Gessing's report doesn't cite is the jump in associate's degree and certificate production statewide: 49 percent more New Mexicans earned such degrees in fiscal year 2009 than in FY 2005. Meanwhile, SFCC's graduation rate for Hispanic students leapt by 120 percent—seemingly good progress in the state's struggle to reduce the achievement gap.

Ironically, Ortego agrees with the need to decrease proliferation of additional college campuses in the state. Before the Higher Education Center won approval, UNM, New Mexico Highlands University and Northern New Mexico College were all exploring the idea of establishing Santa Fe campuses. Rather than adding to the proliferation of campuses, the HEC will bring existing schools together, Ortego notes.

"Santa Fe was previously threatened by [the proliferation of campuses]—people were coming in from outside their geographic area and creating new campus centers, and that is the opposite of what we're doing," Ortego says. "We're trying to pull everything together and make it non-duplicative and more cost-efficient."

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