What is the mission of NM higher education?

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By Paul Gessing

Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently made headlines around the country when he argued that institutes of higher education in his state of Florida should prioritize funding for the study of science and technology in the his state’s institutes of higher education.
“If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take money to create jobs…so I want the money to go to a degree where people can get jobs in this state,” Scott said. “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”
One may agree or disagree with Scott’s assessment, but his remarks do point to a fundamental issue in higher education, specifically what the mission of institutes of higher education should be.
In New Mexico, institutes of higher education received more than $2 billion in funding from the state this year. While that funding level has been reduced somewhat in the current economic downturn, it remains a significant investment of resources. But to what end?
New Mexico has six public universities which offer graduate degrees (UNM, NMSU, ENMU, WNMU, New Mexico Tech and Highlands). This is an unusually high number. Arizona, for example, serves more than four times as many postsecondary students with fewer state-supported institutions.
In order to gain a better understanding of the missions of New Mexico’s various institutes of higher education, the Rio Grande Foundation undertook an effort to study how the boards of regents — the people charged with the duty of guiding the schools — viewed their institutions’ mission statements.
A brief, 10-item survey was sent via email to regents at each of the schools. Unfortunately, in the end, only eight useable responses were received, a paltry response rate of 26.7 percent.
This does not give us enough information to come to many conclusions, however, the general apathy in terms of responses suggests that the public universities’ mission statements may not be the institutional compasses they are meant to be.
Mission statements should represent a starting point for all budgetary discussions.
All of New Mexico’s senior public institutions prominently proclaim their mission statements. A mission statement should publicly affirm the institution’s statutory mandate in terms its primary purposes, who will be served and how. Each mission statement has been adopted by that institution’s board of regents.
If policymakers don’t take their mission statements seriously, how do we know if these institutes are succeeding or failing? How do they know where limited resources should be allocated? Are athletics a top funding priority? How important is research? Are all majors created equal or should greater emphasis be placed on those majors and areas of study that have the greatest potential for employment?
These are all worthy questions and disagreement is possible, but the institutional mission statements must be the starting point for all budgetary and resource allocation discussions.
With so many institutes of higher education enshrined in New Mexico’s Constitution, it would be worthwhile for policymakers to consider whether each institute needs to be everything to everyone or whether greater specialization might be in order. Graduates of New Mexico Tech, for example, do better than graduates of other schools throughout the state. Might it be a model for other schools?
While Scott’s statement that taxpayer resources should be allocated based on need and potential returns may be unpopular with those in the humanities, he does have a valid point. Ultimately, if taxpayer dollars are going to fund higher education, shouldn’t those very same taxpayers receive some assurance that those resources are giving them the maximum return on their investment?
As funds grow more limited over time, New Mexico’s institutes of higher education must respond to market forces and must be incentivized to do so.
Careful evaluation of and adherence to their mission statements should be a minimum starting point.
Dr. Patrick Leonard is a Senior Fellow on Higher Education Policy. Paul Gessing is President of the Rio Grande Foundation.
The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.