- Associated Press - Friday, April 28, 2017

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A rural state university in New Mexico approved a tuition hike Friday, as student costs rise within one of the nation’s most affordable public higher education systems in response to the state’s budget crisis.

Regents at New Mexico Highlands University adopted a 7.5 percent tuition increase in anticipation of new state funding cuts, describing a desperate effort to retain talented faculty and avoid program cuts or furloughs.

The decision extended recent tuition hikes to four of the state’s seven main public colleges - including Northern New Mexico College, Western New Mexico University and Eastern New Mexico University - along with a community college in Santa Fe, as administrators grapple with major financial uncertainties.

All state spending on higher education institutions was vetoed in early April by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez for the coming fiscal year that starts July 1, amid an escalating feud with the Democratic-led Legislature over how to resolve a state budget crisis.

The New Mexico Supreme Court is considering whether to overturn the veto at the request of the Legislature, while ordering state university presidents to file their own opinion in early May.

Administrators at Highlands University recommended a major tuition hike to offset a possible 4 percent cut in state funding - an educated guess at what will emerge from a protracted budget standoff. State spending on higher education was slashed about 8 percent during the current fiscal year that ends June 30 to address a lingering state general fund deficit.

Leveo Sanchez, chairman of the board at Highlands, said the increase was in the interest of “saving the institution, so that the students can go to the institution.”

The university with an enrollment of 3,500 in Las Vegas, N.M., offers undergraduate and advanced degrees in teaching and social work, often serving students who are the first in their families to attend college.

New Mexico’s average public college tuition ranked the lowest of any state in 2015, in an analysis of U.S. Education Department data by debt management consultant Student Loan Hero. The cost per credit hour averaged $113, or $13,560 for a four-year degree.

College administrators fear that affordability may gradually slip away. Adding to the unease, the state is calculating likely fall reductions to scholarships for in-state students from lottery proceeds that currently cover about 90 percent of tuition.

Amy Hasenberg, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Department of Higher Education, offered general reassurances that university funding still is a priority for the governor, who plans to call back lawmakers for a special session to a rewrite a state budget plan.

Martinez has vetoed a long list of tax and fee increases that most state lawmakers believe are needed to shore up funding for public schools, courts and essential government services.

On Wednesday, Santa Fe Community College approved a 2 percent tuition increase - a $1 increase per credit hour, bringing the cost to $49 for city residents and $60 for non-city residents - plus higher fees.

College President Randy Grissom fears a series of recent tuition hikes might discourage “people who come in and go for a short-term certificate, 1-2 year degree that will lead to employment or lead to an increase in wages.”

At New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, the chancellor offered assurances this week to students who have delayed registering for fall class over concerns about school finances.

“I know this will all be taken care of. My message to students is to sign up for your classes,” Chancellor Garrey Carruthers, a former Republican governor of New Mexico, wrote in a letter made public.

Administrators at the University of New Mexico, the state’s largest public university, also are considering fall budget options that could include tuition increases.


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