As students poured into the St. John’s College campus in northeastern Santa Fe for the beginning of the fall semester in August, the school quietly achieved what officials describe as a record for student demographics in recent years—a 23% rate of undergraduate and graduate students who are from New Mexico.
“I don’t have admissions records going all the way back, but since I’ve been here—seven years now—we’re definitely seeing a higher percentage of New Mexico students than we ever have,” Carol Carpenter, the school’s vice president of communications and creative strategy, tells SFR.
Dean of Students Sarah Davis says the figure may be the school’s “highest percentage ever” of New Mexico students. It’s a statistic St. John’s aims to grow even more.
Davis acknowledges St. John’s reputation in Santa Fe has been one of a distant institution detached from the wider Santa Fe community since it opened in 1964. The school’s “Great Books” liberal arts curriculum invites undergraduates to collectively work through the same classes to focus on classical texts in seminar-style settings, where students are encouraged to engage in deep discussion and study interdisciplinary ideas across humanities and sciences.
“I think having the college here, it’s sort of a strange little program, and sometimes it can feel like it’s separate from the community. I think there’s a long history of that,” Davis tells SFR. “We’re trying to overcome that, and inviting the local high school graduates and people from around New Mexico to partake in it is one of our goals.”
Throughout the past several years, St. John’s has undertaken an initiative to make the school more attractive for New Mexico students—primarily by increasing college affordability. In 2018, the school cut its annual tuition for all students from $52,000 per year to $35,000 per year, and now it’s crept up to $37,842 per year.
The lower cost has increased St. John’s overall enrollment: In 2021, 135 freshmen were admitted to the school, which was the school’s largest class on record. Typically, it enrolls between 85 and 100 students each year.
College enrollment has been on the rise throughout the state: total public college enrollment increased by 2.3% this year, according to preliminary data from the state’s Higher Education Department that measures fall enrollment 21 days into the semester.
Specific examples include: Since fall 2022, the University of New Mexico reports its Albuquerque campus had first-year enrollment increase by 3.1%; New Mexico State University’s freshman enrollment increased by 3.4%; Northern New Mexico College reports an enrollment increase of 12%; Eastern New Mexico University’s first year enrollment grew by 14.4% and Western New Mexico University reported a 37% increase within the university’s freshman class.
Between 2021 and 2022, students attending private in-state postsecondary schools increased 17%, from 9,998 to 12,080 students statewide, according to HED’s 2022 annual report.
St. John’s also offers an automatic $12,842 annual grant for New Mexico students, capping tuition from in-state students at approximately $25,000. Additionally, the school matches federal Pell Grants, with this year’s federal Pell Grant cap being $7,395. For New Mexicans who qualify for the greatest financial need, that brings tuition down to about $10,000 per year.
“Financially, we’re making great strides to make this education more available to more people,” Davis says. “The education is rigorous, and to take this financial stress off of students is really important to us.”
In this year’s freshman class, 29% of students are Pell Grant recipients, a figure comparable to the national average of Pell Grant recipients (34%), although an estimated 88% of Pell Grant recipients nationwide elect for public schools over private schools. Typically, the Pell Grant recipient percentage at St. John’s ranges from 22% to 39%, which Davis says is evidence the school “has always been more socioeconomically diverse than it has been perceived.”
She adds that 37% of this year’s freshman class are students of color, which she believes reflects the college’s commitment to diversity. The rate tracks slightly below the statewide average in HED’s annual report of private college-enrollment trends, with Hispanic students making up 41% of private school-enrolled college students.
The college has also been marketing itself to New Mexico students through the Southwest Scholars Partner Schools initiative, which develops relationships with high schools and offers various incentives and perks to students. From each partner school, one student who is accepted to St. John’s can receive a $5,000 scholarship, and two students from each school are eligible to try the school’s summer program for free.
To further aid students struggling with budget constraints, St. John’s piloted an eight-part financial literacy program this year for incoming freshmen, where every student who passes the class and sets up a 529 Education Savings Plan will receive a $500 match pledged by an anonymous donor.
Pier Quintana, St. John’s director of Personal and Professional Development, says the need for financial literacy classes became apparent when she was overseeing sessions of the school’s summer bridge program, which prepares students for the rigorous curriculum at St. John’s while supporting social integration into the college community.
Quintana says, “I was facilitating the session for the Pell Grant recipients, and for the first two years, they constantly said, ‘I really need to figure out how to budget, I don’t understand how to interpret my financial aid award.’”
The course also aims to make sure “students aren’t in a position where they feel like they cannot pay down any debt that they have,” Carpenter says.
Davis says while the strides the school has made have impressed her, there’s still a long way to go to fully integrate St. John’s into the community with a balance of local and out-of-state students.
“To ascertain the effectiveness of our financial and academic support initiatives,” she says, “we’ll be looking at graduation and retention rates over the next few years to know if we have hit the mark.”