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What is the demographic enrollment cliff? It refers to the significant drop in the college-age population that will begin in the 2026-27 academic year, and it represents a prolonged period of time – more than two decades – when New Mexico will be producing fewer and fewer high school graduates. In fact, New Mexico is projected to produce 25 percent fewer high school graduates by the 2036-37 academic year.
Why worry? This phenomenon will have widespread implications for the state.
In producing fewer high school graduates, New Mexico will produce fewer workers, affecting our efforts to advance economic development for the state. Having fewer young people in the workforce will adversely impact the tax base, providing less revenue for the state to support a variety of services for its citizens. To see how impactful a demographic cliff can be to a state or country, just look at China: For many years, China had a national policy limiting most families to one child by imposing hefty fines. In recent years, China relaxed and then ended this policy, because they realized that, among other problems, their workforce would not be sufficient to support an aging population that was living longer.
The same problem looms for New Mexico.
For higher education, this means a negative impact on community colleges and universities in the state unless we explore some creative and innovative policymaking. While some lawmakers and communities debate the relative value of higher education, it is indisputable that community colleges and universities are economic drivers. Higher education produces an educated workforce and spurs economic development and innovation.
What can be done to mitigate the demographic cliff? There are a number of internal and external interventions that can help minimize its adverse effects.
Let me first address external factors for higher education and then I will address some internal factors that all higher education institutions, including NMSU, must examine to position itself for a positive path forward.
First, New Mexico colleges and universities cannot continue to rely primarily on New Mexico high school students. There just aren’t enough of them to provide a robust economic and workforce development pipeline. We must broaden our student pool by enticing surrounding states with in-state tuition. New Mexico universities already offer in-state or deeply discounted rates to some students in neighboring states. I am exploring an Interstate-10 corridor policy exemption to allow students ranging from Los Angeles to Phoenix and Tucson, to San Antonio, Houston and south of I-10 to the Rio Grande Valley to be given the opportunity to come NMSU at a discounted tuition rate.
At NMSU, fewer than half of our graduating students stay in New Mexico after they graduate. This is much lower than many states, where the number is closer to 80 percent. Why don’t NMSU graduates stay in New Mexico? It’s simple – New Mexico doesn’t currently offer the array of high-paying job opportunities found elsewhere. Here’s a real-life example: A talented student who works in the NMSU president’s office recently earned a great internship opportunity in Boston. She did such a great job, the company offered her a position when she graduates next May. The job opportunities available locally for this Las Cruces native just weren’t enticing enough to keep her here.
Second, like Texas already requires, we need to require as part of high school graduation that all students complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Many qualified New Mexico students are leaving up to $7,395 on the table by not applying for federal aid.
Internally, NMSU and all of New Mexico’s other colleges and universities need to examine what they can do differently to drive enrollment and retention. Inaction or maintaining the status quo will have disastrous results. I experienced this firsthand at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) from 2015 to 2021. From 2011 to 2023, UWM’s enrollment went from 32,000 students to under 22,000. Every institution needs to improve its student retention rate by examining every aspect, from how courses are scheduled to advising practices to structural and cultural aspects that may be inadvertently creating barriers to success.
We’re fast approaching the demographic enrollment cliff. The question is, what will New Mexico do to mitigate its adverse effects and ensure a softer landing?
Alan Shoho is provost and chief academic officer of New Mexico State University. He may be reached at provost.nmsu.edu.