June 20, 2020

Higher education cuts could jeopardize research funding, freeze hiring

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

Proposed cuts to higher education spending in New Mexico could jeopardize some research funding for state universities and lead to a hiring freeze at Santa Fe Community College, advocates say.

Universities and colleges in New Mexico are denouncing proposed cuts to higher education spending as lawmakers trim budgets across state government to fill a $2.4 billion budget hole wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic and a devastated oil and gas market.

A draft House bill seeking to blend recommendations from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and an influential budget committee would slash roughly 6 percent from research and public service projects at universities and 4 percent for broader university and public college funding from the state. That would represent the steepest reductions for any state-funded department or agency eyeing potential cuts as lawmakers address the budget shortfall.

The Legislature is still debating the proposed cuts.

State Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, defended them, arguing that universities and colleges can raise tuition to make up the difference unlike when budgets are axed in K-12 education and other publicly funded programs.

But higher education advocates blasted the proposed austerity. If approved, the deeper 6 percent cut would apply to nursing programs across the state, cancer research at the University of New Mexico and other health and research initiatives that have never been more important than during the pandemic, they argue.

It’s too early to speculate on what specifically would be on the chopping block — whether new machinery or vacant positions. But a reduction in state funding could jeopardize UNM’s ability to qualify for more funding from the federal government or other sources for research projects, said Barbara Damron, chief government relations officer for the university and program director of the school’s college of nursing.

“We then lose out on millions of additional dollars, not to mention the lives we’re saving through our cancer center,” Damron said.

Damron complained that New Mexico already funds the university’s cancer center at a lower amount than any other state cancer center in the country. At the same time, universities and colleges have lost money after expenses rose amid the pandemic.

Switching to online classes and beefing up cleaning and other expenses associated with the pandemic have already cost colleges, said Becky Rowley, president of Santa Fe Community College.

Money from the federal CARES Act for colleges and universities was insufficient to cover all of those costs, Rowley said. At the same time, lawmakers are discussing diverting $6.9 million in federal money meant to cover higher education COVID-19 related expenses elsewhere under an amended draft of legislation debated on the House floor Friday evening.

The result for Santa Fe Community College could be a $3 million deficit, according to Rowley.

“The magnitude of the revenue decreases and the cuts we’re expecting could be really catastrophic, so we’re hoping that they can spread those around a little more evenly,” Rowley said. She added that the community college may have to freeze hiring for 50 vacant positions as a result, but is not considering tuition increases.

Also on the chopping block would be athletic programs, public TV and other research projects, according to Marc Saavedra, executive director of the Council of University Presidents.

Saavedra said UNM, New Mexico State University and Eastern New Mexico University are unlikely to raise tuition because of the cuts, should they happen.

Still, “it creates a number of challenges for higher ed,” he said, likely forcing tough choices in recruiting new faculty, keeping programs well-funded and maintaining a spot in the global competition between research institutions.

New Mexico University is within the top seven lowest tuition state schools in the country.

“We don’t want to have to rely on tuition to offset these things,” Saavedra said.

Administrators may want tuition increases to be the last resort when colleges and universities raise the cost of education, but across the country the trend over the past several decades has been rising tuition as costs are shifted from states to students.

Across the country, state funding for public universities in 2018 was roughly $6.6 billion below 2008 funding levels after adjusting for inflation, according to a 2019 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

In fiscal year 2018, higher education in New Mexico was cut by $49 million, about 33 percent of the overall budget reductions that year. The year before that, colleges and universities took a $20 million cut while health and hospitals, public safety, K-12 and spending on courts increased, Saavedra said.

Saavedra added that in total from fiscal year 2016 through fiscal year 2018, higher education took a 44 percent reduction that has not been made up after subsequent increases.