- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 22, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico colleges are seeing a decline in enrollment as the economy improves and administrators try to adjust and find ways to lure more students.

The state Department of Higher Education says the latest numbers show New Mexico saw a 2 percent statewide enrollment drop from 2013 to 2014. Officials expect 2015 numbers to also show a decrease, following a trend nationwide.

New Mexico State University, for example, reported an enrollment drop for 2015, continuing a decrease over five years like other schools in the state.

According to New Mexico State University, its 2015 fall enrollment was 15,490. Officials say that’s a 14 percent drop from 2011.

Citing falling enrollment numbers, Standard & Poor’s recently lowered the school’s long-term rating to “AA-minus” from “AA.”

NMSU Senior Vice President for Administration and Finance Angela Throneberry says despite the enrollment decline, the school saw a record number of first-time freshmen in 2015. “So we feel very positive about the future,” Throneberry said.

She said recruiters are being aggressive this year in trying to attract new students.

The University of New Mexico this year also saw a decline in students, although a small one.

Unofficial numbers show the state’s largest school had a fall 2015 student enrollment of 27,354, spokesman Steve Carr said. That’s a slight decrease from a year ago, when the school reported an enrollment of 27,889.

In fall 2011, the university had 29,056 students, according to school data. That means it’s seen around a 6 percent drop over five years.

But the decrease has not affected the University of New Mexico’s long-term AA rating, Carr said.

The school has budgeted $500,000 to pay a Philadelphia-based company to rebrand it to lure more students.

Meanwhile, New Mexico Highlands University reported a small decrease of students on campus in 2015. But the Las Vegas school saw an overall jump when comparing enrollment at its satellite centers across the state.

Western New Mexico University’s enrollment has remained steady since 2011, spokesman Abe Villarreal said. The Silver City school has 3,358 students today, compared with 3,331 students five years ago, Villarreal said.

Eastern New Mexico University, however, saw a 1 percent increase in fall enrollment, and officials say it was the Portales school’s 19th consecutive yearly jump. School officials say this fall’s student enrollment is 5,946, compared with last year’s 5,887.

No one knows exactly why overall student enrollment is falling in New Mexico and nationwide, but officials suspect an improving economy may be a factor.

“We’ve seen promising employment growth in New Mexico for some time now, and that is undoubtedly having an impact,” said Joseph Cueto, New Mexico Department of Higher Education spokesman.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a nonprofit focused on research and education policy, ranked New Mexico as having the largest enrollment drop nationwide.

According to the report, registration at colleges and universities plummeted 8.3 percent between spring 2014 and this past spring. That is especially steep when compared with the 1.9 percent enrollment drop nationwide.

The enrollment declines come as Gov. Susana Martinez is pushing a series of reforms aimed at increasing the graduation rates at the state’s colleges.

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education says the state’s six-year college graduation rate is 46 percent. Nationally, it’s 69 percent.

Martinez said universities need to increase counseling efforts and reduce undergraduate degree programs to 120 hours.

New Mexico Highlands University already has adopted Martinez’s 120-hours proposal, and NMSU Vice President for Student Affairs Bernadette Montoya said her university is considering it.

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Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at https://twitter.com/russcontreras.

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