Reflecting the challenges before and during the pandemic, some initiatives have not produced the expected results. Even after California recently expanded free tuition opportunities, enrollment in its community colleges fell nearly 15% in 2021 from the previous year.
The push for tuition-free higher education comes amid a broader enrollment crisis in the United States. Total undergraduate enrollment fell 6.6% from 2019 to 2021, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Enrollment had already declined before the pandemic as students faced soaring tuition fees. But dissatisfaction with online learning, as well as the reluctance of some international students to study in the United States at a time when immigration rhetoric has become more toxic, has also driven students away. Demographic shifts, including a plummeting birth rate and a declining population aged 18 to 25, could produce even steeper declines in coming years.
New Mexico’s public colleges and universities are hardly isolated from these forces. The University of New Mexico, which was founded in 1889 before New Mexico became a state, saw enrollment in Albuquerque drop by 4,580 students, from 26,218 in 2017 to 21,638 in 2021.
“The timing of this, in some ways, is very fortuitous,” said University of New Mexico provost Dr. James Holloway, noting how many students had dropped out during the pandemic. Dr. Holloway, a professor of nuclear engineering, added that the program would make the university more competitive by attracting students weighing offers from out-of-state colleges and universities.
Although some conservative lawmakers have sought in vain for income caps to prevent students from wealthy families from going to college tuition-free, Dr. Holloway likened expanding college access to the State commitment to public schools.
“Free primary and secondary education is considered a public good, regardless of your living environment,” he said, arguing that higher education should be viewed in the same light.