Is college Independent
By Sharon McIntireNew Mexico State University-Carlsbad sits tranquilly at the base of C-Hill overlooking our town. At least, it used to sit tranquilly. There are increasing signs of restlessness.Perhaps she feels overlooked and undervalued. It wouldn't be the first time. Opened in 1950 at the edge of the high school campus, the only thing most locals appreciated about the Carlsbad Instructional Center was the building's eye-catching mosaic facade. She offered a stringent curriculum by professorswho were dedicated to educational excellence.Opinions shifted when she was adopted by New Mexico State University in 1960, and by the time she was relocated to her present location in 1980, she had earned the area's respect in her own right. She continued to grow and expand, adding a computer facility in 1996, and the Allied Health Center in 2011. In addition to offering quality education to scholars pursuing academic careers, she also responded to the diversity of Carlsbad's economy, making certification and specialization programs available to scholars seeking profitable careers that don't necessarily require a college degree.Connecting with Carlsbad Municipal Schools, the college opened their Early College High School classes in 2014. Students enroll in this academy in their freshman year of high school. Taking classes at the college in their area of interest, they fulfill requirements for high school gradation in two years and go on to complete their associate degree during their junior and senior years."The school district has had a very good relationship with NMSU-C," states CMS Superintendent Dr. Gerry Washburn, "and the Early College High School is obviously something we're very proud of."But NMSU-C again feels unappreciated, this time by her mother institution in Las Cruces. Rumblings of discontent began to fill the hallways and seeped into the community, eventually arriving at the Mayor’s higher education task force.Task force member John Heaton says the tempest has been brewing for some time. Local businesses requested professional training, but suffered extended delays in getting needed curriculum approved. With the closing of the college bookstore, students were unable to obtain supplies and even textbooks in time for the beginning ofclasses. Those who completed their associates degree found it difficult to transfer to other colleges or universities due to delays in delivering transcripts that had to originate from the Las Cruces campus.Forced to complete an increasing number of classes online from the main campus, student costs suffered increasing costs; in some cases from $40/hour to as much as $300/hour. And these online students were listed as enrolled at the main campus rather than in Carlsbad, thus skewing our numbers and decreasing local funding. Professors were placed under continuous pressure to cut costs and programs, even though the Carlsbad college operated on a healthy budget.The final blow came when President John Gratton retired and New Mexico State decided not to replace him –or any of the presidents at their branch colleges. Heaton asserts that presidents may be unnecessary to the college in Las Cruces, but in Carlsbad and in other New Mexico communities they are essential. "The president of the local college wasfundamentally responsible for interacting with the community," Heaton says, "to ferret out their educational needs and then bring those educational needs to them."
Losing the local president not only severed the connection between the college and the local community, it also destroyed the direct connection between Carlsbad and NMSU. "The president had direct interaction with the Chancellor at New Mexico State," Heaton states, "so when this new bureaucracy was created, the Chancellor was eliminated, and in its place was a bureaucracy of several people that created go-betweens between our local president and the Chancellor. Everyone felt that was a really serious problem."Economic diversity was also an issue. "Other than Albuquerque, there's no city in the state that has the diversity that we have in our economy," he stresses, noting that these various industries and businesses require educational support and training, and, "that's what community colleges are all about is to provide that education, whether its academic or whether it's skills training."Economic diversity has also made it increasingly difficult to hire staff. "Salaries are controlled by the main campus," Heaton asserts. "But in Carlsbad the costs of living are substantially higher than they are in Las Cruces." Because the main campus refused to pay professors in Carlsbad more than those in Las Cruces, "we weren't able to offer the kinds of salaries we needed to attract instructional personnel. Not only are we a smaller city than Las Cruces-and it's sometimes more difficult to recruit in small cities -but the fact that we couldn't pay a competitive salary meant that nobody was even going to look at us."As an example, the nursing program is working at 50 percent of its instructor capacity and frankly, we haven't been able to attract any nursing instructors due to the fact that we can't offer enough in their salary in order for us to be able to attract them. Our nursing program received recognition just recently as being the best nursing program in the state of New Mexico, so that means we have an extraordinary small group of instructors who are really dedicated and committed to teaching nursing. They've gone over and above the call of duty, and they're really overwhelmed and overworked."Seeking independence may seem like a fit of the sulks, but proformas completed project a very healthy financial outlook for our college. A large part of that optimism is a cozy $34,000,000 resting in Las Cruces banks which, though earmarked for local use, is inaccessible as long as we are under the umbrella of NMSU.To take advantage of the New Mexico State University name and the services it provides us, we pay approximately $1,000,000 to Las Cruces annually. The task force admits that bringing those services home will require adding additional staff, but it should still save the college approximately $400,000 a year. Add the monies afforded by our generous community and additional state funding, and our college's financial future looks extremely bright..Rep. Cathrynn Brown hopes to introduce legislation this week to convert NMSU-C to an independent community college. "There is so much support from the faculty and from students to go independent," she says. "I think that if we have more local control, we can have programs and courses of study that more meet the needs of students in the region. I think the independence here could really be positive. When they're captain of their own ship, it's easier to be responsive to local needs."Thus begins a mountainof paperwork and tasks that are required for the necessary change in ownership and reaccreditation through the Higher Education Department. "All of our ducks have to be in a row, "Heaton cautions. "We certainly don't want to put our students at a disadvantage. We want to make this changeover very advantageous for students." So, erring on the side of caution, the task force anticipates that Southeast New Mexico College will offer its first classes by the fall semester of 2022.Other than that mountain of work, Heaton sees no disadvantage in freeing the college from bondage. "This gives us the ability to interact with other universities -it gives us a lot of control over what we need to do for our students in our community. Our budget is well paid for everyyear; in fact, that's why that $34,000,000 exists, because there's a small amount that floods over into that as a reserve every year,
and it grows. So we're well financed. "We can apply for geobond funding, and we can begin to cooperate with many universities."Outreach to other universities has been positive. "They're quite interested in having cooperative agreements with us for students who, once they've achieved their associate degrees, can pursue their bachelor degree locally while they're still ableto work." While maintaining a healthy relationship with New Mexico State University, the college will expand to other universities as well.Already the college is working in concert with Carlsbad Municipal Schools to expand their Career Technology Education courses, and Dr. Washburn is supportive. "If the college is a branch of New Mexico State, they're always trying to thread that needle between Carlsbad's needs and New Mexico State's needs; and when it's a branch college of New Mexico State, they're going to default to what NMSU's needs are first and Carlsbad's needs second."Following an outside review of Carlsbad High School's CTE courses, the school board followed recommendations to reorganize CHS into five additional academies: Health and Human Services, Technology and Industrial Sciences, Business and Information Technology, and an academy of Fine Arts and Humanities."Our primary objective as members of the task force is to listen," Dr. Washburn noted, "and to make sure that in whatever direction went, we would continue to support the Early College High School and to support our transition to these academy models at the high school."That doesn't necessarily mean college. "One of the things we needed to be sure of as we're going independent is that those certification programs stay in place, so our kids continue to have those opportunities. We want to be sure that our kids here in Carlsbad have every option that they can possibly have to prepare them for, and set them up to, their next stages in life once they graduate from high school."With the freedom to pursue their own objectives, the task force feels recruitment will be much easier, offering competitive salaries more in alignment with our local economy. With property available on the site, that could even include housing. "The community for a number of years has asked for campus housing," Heaton states. Although that has been repeatedly denied, it is now a possibility, not only for college staff and students, but perhaps also for public schoolteachers and for police and fire personnel.How does all this brouhaha affect our students who roam the halls and seek to improve their futures? They may never notice the difference. Bureaucracies being what they are, there will be countless hours spent behind the scenes by the task force, but it will probably go virtually unnoticed by those who will benefit from it.If students haven't paid for online classes at exaggerated prices, or waited for textbooks to be delivered, or requested transcript delivery, then events will probably go on with remarkable consistency. They may be pleasantly surprised that college is, after all, affordable and that there is an increasingly wide variety of classes available to fit their needs. But they'll be blissfully ignorant of the revolution the members of our mayor's task force have taken on their behalf.If only all revolutions could be so unremarkable.Note: Carlsbad Local editorial director Kyle Marksteiner is a member of the task force on higher education.