College administrators have come to expect that a slump in the economy means an uptick in enrollment numbers. It follows that when there is less work available due to sluggish markets, more people seek out degrees for better future job security.
But as the economy continued to decline through 2020—driven into a deep hole by the coronavirus pandemic—administrators at Santa Fe Community College faced a grim reality when their enrollment numbers dipped below 4,000. Despite the poor economy, the community college’s figures did not follow the trend they had come to expect: The economy took a downward turn, but students did not flock to the college seeking degrees.
SFCC had plenty of company.
Last year, institutions across New Mexico witnessed the largest drops in enrollment of any state, decreasing 9.5% from fall of 2019 to 2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Public two-year colleges reported the most significant dips—10% .
At SFCC, there were 5,453 students enrolled in the fall before the pandemic and 3,904 taking classes at the college in the fall of 2020. That’s a drop of 28%. Last May the college announced it was cutting several disciplines, including the solar energy program, in response to the ongoing financial emergency.
“We serve the working population,” says Yash Morimoto, SFCC’s associate vice president for planning and institutional effectiveness. “What’s been unique about this particular situation is that the economy tanked but people were still hesitant to be in a classroom setting.”
Though the last year was rough in terms of enrollment for most New Mexico colleges and universities, numbers for the fall 2021 semester across the state hint at higher headcounts as administrators hold tentative hopes of returning to pre-pandemic levels.
Morimoto chalks the especially devastating blow to community college enrollment up to the populations they serve.
“Predominantly for the four-year institutions, these are full-time, what you and I might consider ‘traditional’ students,” he explains. “If you look at community college enrollment, 75% or more...are part-time students, in part because they’re working at the same time.”
Total enrollment numbers across the state have declined since 2010, according to the state Higher Education Department, but the drop between 2019 and 2020 was more than twice the size of any previous change over one year.
Dan García, the University of New Mexico’s vice president for enrollment management, speculates this might be attributed to the slow, consistent growth of the economy since the 2008 recession.
“When the economy is good, a lot of people don’t go to college,” García tells SFR.
Another factor stagnating enrollment over time, according to García, is New Mexico’s lack of a robust high-school-to-college pipeline. By Garcia’s estimates, only about 13,000 high school graduates in New Mexico make plans to go to college each year—and that’s out of 20,000 total graduates.
In turn, universities are susceptible to enrollment swings.
“We’re trying to supplement enrollment with non-resident students,” García says, pointing to the significant number of high school graduates in Texas.
García says enrollment at UNM ticked up compared to this time last year. First-year, graduate and transfer students accounted for the increase.
García sees it as a hopeful sign for the college’s financial situation, which depends not only on headcount, but the number of credit hours enrolled students take. These two factors determine the amount of money that comes to UNM, both from the state, as a public university, and tuition revenue.
“Every 1% that we may be down in [semester credit hour enrollment] it may mean $1 million in funding for us,” García estimates. “Enrollment is very critical for the...fiscal health of the institution.”
Like other institutions, New Mexico State University saw similarly low enrollment rates, but school officials are “optimistic about enrollment this fall, and we anticipate similar numbers to what we saw last year,” Minerva Baumann, a spokeswoman for the state’s second largest university in Las Cruces, writes to SFR in an email.
Northern New Mexico College didn’t suffer the significant headcount decreases other colleges in the state saw, which Richard Bailey, the college president, attributes to strategic planning in previous years to expand career and technical education and collaborate with employers such as Los Alamos National Laboratory to maintain student interest.
Despite the consistent enrollment numbers, the pandemic did negatively impact the auxiliary services of the Española-based college. Bailey says the college had to eliminate positions in the bookstore and cafeteria.
“We are exploring what the post-pandemic landscape for those services looks like,” Bailey tells SFR.
Bailey says it’s difficult to predict how this year’s numbers will shake out. The positive early trend “shouldn’t stop us from continuing to innovate and continuing to find partners and collaborations and strategic initiatives that we are confident will pay dividends in the future,” he says.
Higher education institutions looking to beef up their numbers have pursued different avenues to win students back.
At New Mexico Highlands University, continuing students hesitant to return due to existing debts with the school can seek relief funds from the university.
“We’re using some of the federal relief funds to say, ‘Look, you have no debt, please come back to Highlands,’” says President Sam Minner. “We’re here waiting for you and anxious for you to return.”
Other schools are also using money to entice students back to campus.
SFCC has pushed various scholarships and funding opportunities, particularly among populations that have seen lower enrollment rates compared to years past. A new initiative providing universal basic income to 100 parents enrolled in classes will give families $400 a month and hopefully draw in more students this fall.
With over 2,600 students already enrolled, SFCC has almost 1,000 more people registered for the upcoming fall semester than this time last year.
After a particularly dire phase of low enrollment, college administrators breathe a sigh of relief to see the numbers correcting to historical figures—knowing that students are coming back.