Collaboration in the Midst of Decentralization

In spite of having one of the country’s most decentralized higher education systems, New Mexico is not halting its progress towards improving higher education. The New Mexico Higher Education Department (NMHED) oversees the state’s 31 public higher education institutions (institutions), registers and licenses all of the approximately 70 private postsecondary institutions operating in the state and authorizes institutions to administer distance education (currently 42).

The state’s 31 public higher education institutions, which includes 24 state colleges and universities, four tribal colleges, and three special institutions, are led by 21 governing and 10 advisory boards. The 24 public institutions include three research institutions, four comprehensive universities, 10 branch community colleges, and seven independent community colleges. In addition, there are several satellite locations, offering courses or degree programs, across the state, which means there are approximately 77 physical points of access to public higher education in New Mexico.

For every statewide initiative that the NMHED leads for public institutions, we have to get buy-in from 31 boards, 31 presidents, 31 provosts/chief academic officers, 31 faculty senates – well, you get the picture.

Over the past four years, New Mexico has demonstrated that when leadership, tenacity, and an indefatigable focus on outcomes converge, amazing results can be obtained for students. As I come from a background in health care, I was surprised by the lack of focus on outcomes in higher education. The achievements that were accomplished in my previous field of oncology were driven by an unrelenting focus on outcomes – without this laser focus, we would still be seeing 85 percent mortality rates for breast cancer, as just one example.

While New Mexico has supported higher education, as evidenced by consistently ranking as the state with the highest (or 2nd highest) proportion of the state budget going to higher education – between 12.3 percent and 15.9 percent of the state’s budget, postsecondary graduation and completion rates have lagged behind national averages. In order to incentivize increases in graduation and completion, the state changed its higher education formula that focused on inputs, such as enrollment and size of the campus, to a funding formula based on performance-based outcomes– completion of a postsecondary credential. However, with only a small percentage of the total funding going through performance outcomes measures (2 percent – 6 percent over the past 6 years), we needed other mechanisms to help us improve student outcomes.

To address this, we convened stakeholders from our public institutions, legislators, business leaders, and other state agencies to establish an attainment goal and identify initiatives to improve student outcomes and, ultimately, the health and economic development of our state.  In less than 45 days, we obtained unanimous agreement amongst all of our stakeholders to adopt the Route to 66, which is the goal of 66 percent of working-age New Mexicans having a postsecondary credential by 2030. What an exciting time

But again, as in health care, this goal would never become a reality without clearly defining outcomes prior to charting a path. We identified a lack of articulation between our institutions as a barrier to completion. With a high rate of swirl between our institutions and first-time freshman transferring in dual credit courses, we realized it is imperative that courses transfer and articulate to a student’s chosen degree program. It was during these conversations that the “Trifecta of Articulation” was born. The Trifecta of Articulation addressed barriers to articulation between our public institutions: lack of a statewide common course numbering system, an outdated general education model, and a lack of clear degree plans. In order to reach our aggressive attainment goal and improve articulation, we recognized that, as a state, we would have to collaborate – to have some sort of enchanted engagement in this Land of Enchantment.

Within two years, with a clear focus on outcomes, we as a state have transformed articulation in higher education. After convening faculty from across the state to examine every single lower division course offered by public institutions, with help from the registrars, we unveiled our statewide common course numbering system in September 2018. Simultaneously, with a committee of chief academic officers and faculty, we reformed the general education curriculum to focus on the essential skills necessary for success. We are currently completing clear term-by-term maps for all credentials offered in the state and both institutional and statewide meta-majors.

With 31 higher education boards in a heavily rural state of 2 million people spread out across 120,000 square miles, we could have said that the system was too decentralized and the barriers to working together for the good of the state (and therefore students and economic growth) were too great. However, as in health care, by focusing on outcomes we could change the trajectory of students’ lives and of our state. We had to act!

We are beginning to see improved outcomes across our state. If we can make these changes with support from all stakeholders in a higher education system as decentralized as New Mexico, just imagine what we as a country can do as we focus on outcomes in higher education.

Dr. Barbara Damron is currently Cabinet Secretary of the New Mexico Higher Education Department and is the State Higher Education Executive Officer.