Reflecting challenges before and during the pandemic, some initiatives have not produced the desired results. Even after California recently expanded free tuition opportunities, enrollment at its community colleges fell by nearly 15 percent in 2021 from a year earlier.
The push for tuition-free higher education comes amid a broader enrollment crisis in the United States. Total undergraduate enrollment fell by 6.6 percent from 2019 to 2021, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Enrollment had already been declining before the pandemic as students faced soaring tuition costs. But dissatisfaction with online learning, as well as the hesitancy of some international students to study in the United States at a time when immigration rhetoric has grown more poisonous, also drove students away. Demographic shifts, including a plummeting birth rate and a decline in the population aged 18 to 25, may produce even steeper declines in the coming years.
Public colleges and universities in New Mexico are hardly insulated from those forces. The University of New Mexico, which was founded in 1889 before New Mexico gained statehood, saw its enrollment in Albuquerque fall 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 Dr. James Holloway, provost of the University of New Mexico, noting how many students had abandoned their studies during the pandemic. Dr. Holloway, a professor of nuclear engineering, added that the program would make the university more competitive in attracting students weighing offers from out-of-state colleges and universities.
Although some conservative lawmakers unsuccessfully sought income caps to prevent students from wealthy families going to college tuition-free, Drs. Holloway likened broadening access to college with the state’s commitment to public schools.
“Free primary and secondary education is seen as a public good no matter what walk of life you come from,” he said, contending that higher education should be viewed in the same light.