Albuquerque, N.M. – New Mexicans attending a statewide town hall on higher education this week delivered a dozen reform proposals for a system they said is not adequately preparing students for careers in the state.
Public policy organization New Mexico First convened its regular town hall, the organization's 42nd, which invites residents from all over the state to converge on a chosen topic, discuss solutions and agree by consensus on a slate of reforms that New Mexico First then implements through legislation and other means. Some past town halls have discussed healthcare, economic vitality and water.
This week's town hall, entitled "Strengthening Higher Education and Tomorrow's Workforce," hosted nearly 200 New Mexicans on Tuesday and Wednesday in Albuquerque to discuss the state's higher education and workforce development systems.
"Education changes lives, it changes families and it changes our future," Heather Balas, president and executive director of New Mexico First, said. "New Mexicans know the impact of education and the urgency with which we need to make reforms, as evidenced by the hundreds of citizens in attendance who came from two-thirds of the state's counties and representing rural, tribal and urban areas."
Balas said higher education and workforce development are "inextricably connected" to the state's high rate of poverty, years-long high unemployment rate and the outmigration of working-age adults, especially graduates of New Mexico colleges and universities.
"More can be done to align degrees and certificates with the abundance of job vacancies in the state," Balas said. "A critical sector with an ongoing shortage of workers is healthcare, which limits residents' access to health services. We had a group of participants focus specifically on how to fill the healthcare workforce pipeline with qualified workers."
Bringing down barriers was a common theme that emerged from the half-dozen discussion groups, with each group focusing on a different topic. Collectively, groups said the state's higher education system will benefit from greater collaboration between community colleges and universities, and making post-high school education more accessible will improve completion and career outcomes.
"Many of the state's higher education institutions are written into our constitution, so they cannot be eliminated, and it was recently concluded by a task force that doing so would not help much," Del Archuleta, one of two co-chairs heading up efforts to implement the town hall's recommendations. "With only so much money to be shared by our universities and colleges, what we can do is find ways for them to collaborate so that New Mexico has a more cohesive educational system."
Each of the six discussion groups was tasked with crafting a vision statement at the beginning of the town hall. For example, the discussion group whose topic was titled "Student Success: High school preparedness and community college" envision that "[b]y 2028 New Mexico will lead the nation in high school and post-secondary enrollment and graduation rates. K-12 and post-secondary improvements, incorporating experiential and relevant learning has resulted in an increase in college and career readiness and living wages."
Groups were then directed to propose two goals, each with three to five strategies on how to attain the goal. Goals and accompanying strategies had to receive a vote by the full town hall of 85 percent to move forward as a consensus-based recommendation.
Randy Grissom, a former Santa Fe Community College president and Archuleta's implementation co-chair, said that detailed action plans of the recommendations will be determined in the coming months as the implementation committee and sub-committees convene.
"Our job, after the town hall, is to work with the committee to winnow down that list to a small set for which we can advocate to the Legislature," Grissom said. "Implementing the full body of work created by the town hall will require even more New Mexicans' rallying for these changes, and we will work with community leaders, educators, the media and others to get it accomplished. New Mexico's future depends on it."
The complete report on the town hall will be released later this month on the nonprofit's website, nmfirst.org. Goals outlined by the town hall fall into three categories: student success in high school preparation, community colleges and universities; higher education institution governance and funding; and workforce alignment and integration, particularly in the energy and healthcare industries. Specific examples are:
- Improve the transition from high school to college.
- Create a highly qualified and diverse pool of K-12 teachers.
- Get all students off the good start in college by identifying risk factors early, reducing the use of remedial courses, and advancing top-notch instruction in the classroom.
- Provide more financial and advising support to college students so they meet their graduation and career goals.
- Meet the rapidly changing workforce needs of the energy sector by aligning education and training program with skills employers require.
- Make New Mexico a global leader for energy education and research.
- Improve collaboration between New Mexico's colleges and universities, improving student success and reducing duplication.
- Strengthen the governance and accountability systems for New Mexico's colleges and universities.
- Expand highly qualified workforce of health professionals, including physical, behavioral, dental and elder care providers.
- Ensure that New Mexico's health workforce is highly diverse and culturally competent.
- Advance a governance system (such as a board or coalition) to manage coordination between employers, education entities, and government agencies to improve workforce training throughout all school.
- Improve career-based education for students of all ages.
"As a result of this town hall's recommendations and the ensuing implementation over the next couple of years," Balas said, "we are confident more New Mexicans will achieve fulfilling lives and sustaining and successful careers in New Mexico."