April 19, 2017

State college exchange program sees cuts amid budget troubles

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State budget troubles are prompting the New Mexico Higher Education Department to make cuts to a program local students use to attend colleges in nearby states for programs not offered at home.

New Mexico pays into the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE) Professional Student Exchange Program that allows local students to go to dentistry and veterinary schools outside of the state at a reduced rate. To qualify for the loan for service, students must sign a declaration of intent to return to and work in New Mexico once they finish school.

Currently, 67 students from New Mexico benefit from the WICHE exchange program. By next fall, that number will drop by six students.

The state attributes the planned drop to ongoing budget problems and a recent rise in the program’s student support fees.

In a prepared statement, NMHED Secretary Barbara Damron said the department “is disappointed that we cannot fund as many students for the WICHE [Professional Student] Exchange Program this year.” But she added that “we are maintaining our commitment to all current participants and hope to increase new awards in future years.”

“The Department makes all of its decisions through the lens of the student to maximize benefit to the students and constituents of our state within the realities of our current fiscal situation,” Damron said.

The department has funded WICHE at around $2.1 million per year for the past three fiscal years. This level stayed the same going into the current fiscal year, which started last July and ends this June.

But in the fall, after Gov. Susana Martinez ordered all state agencies to cut their spending by 5 percent, the department cut WICHE spending for the year by about $175,000, according to numbers from the Legislative Finance Committee.

As legislators prepare for a special session following Gov. Susana Martinez’s veto of all state spending on higher education, both NMHED and the LFC are recommending the Legislature allocate $2.091 million—less money than at the start of the last fiscal year—for the WICHE student exchange program.

State Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, said the WICHE cutbacks illustrate the state’s economic problems, problems that he contended are amplified by Martinez’s veto of higher education spending and unresolved budget for the next fiscal year.

“Every day this goes on it’s going to get worse and worse,” McCamley said in an interview.

He added that the WICHE program “works very well,” especially since many students have the potential to earn more money practicing as dentists and veterinarians in other states.

“It’s really sad,” McCamley said. “If we want students to come back here, we have to provide incentives.”

Last week, McCamley posted on social media that a New Mexico State University student lost the WICHE grant previously offered to her because of state budget cuts. NM Political Report reached out to the student, who declined to comment for this story on the record.