Access to Higher Education in New Mexico: Ethnoracial, Geographical, and Class Disparities
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Access to Higher Education in New Mexico: Ethnoracial, Geographical, and Class Disparities


This chapter, written for an anthology on Race and Racism in Rural America, assesses the intersections of race and ethnicity with rurality in relation to higher education access and attainment in the State of New Mexico. New Mexico is one of the nation’s most rural states and is home to a distinct population in terms of race and ethnicity: the greatest percentage Latinx/Hispanic population—right at half and growing fast—and the third smallest population of non-Hispanic whites among all states. Further, more than a tenth of New Mexicans identify as American Indian, the second greatest percentage among the states. The fifth most sparsely populated state in the nation, New Mexico struggles chronically with a lagging economy, high poverty and child poverty rates, and low educational attainment. Against that demographic and economic backdrop, the analysis in this chapter reveals disappointing educational attainment among Hispanic and American Indian students as measured against these groups’ proportion of the state’s broader population, but particularly in relation to New Mexico’s college-aged population. In other words, young Hispanics’ status as a majority does not appear to be a protective factor—or at least not a sufficiently protective one—when it comes to higher educational attainment. American Indian students struggle to an even greater degree, falling far behind both their non-Hispanic white and Hispanic counterparts. Still, being low-income is a bigger risk factor than race or ethnicity when it comes to college preparedness. While rural residents’ education level consistently falls behind that of metropolitan residents, it is impossible to determine the extent to which this is due to a rural brain drain—the phenomenon of young people raised in rural areas who migrate to urban areas to obtain their college degrees and then stay, often because of better economic opportunities. Indeed, the data suggest bleak higher education outcomes for all low-income and rural residents, regardless of race or ethnicity. We attribute this in part to inadequate state funding of public higher education and to a mismatch between how that funding is currently spent, e.g., four-year institutions, merit-based student aid, and how it could be better spent to promote access and attainment for the most vulnerable students. We close the chapter with recommendations for policy makers seeking to achieve equity in education and thus also foster a brighter economic future for the entire state. We emphasize the need for the collection of more nuanced data so that the State of New Mexico can better understand trends and shift resources in ways that will make education access more equitable across race, ethnicity, class, and geography.

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