|Almost exactly one year ago, on Jan. 30, 2020, the World Health Organization reported that cases of COVID-19 had been found in 19 countries and that the novel coronavirus had gone global. Six weeks later, the first case in New Mexico was announced by the New Mexico Department of Health. And now this week, we began our third academic term affected by the pandemic.
In response to the virus, 35% of our spring classes will be fully online, while 53% of our classes will be hybrid. This means that pivoting to all-online instruction, if needed, should be feasible. The remaining classes – all in-person – are largely reserved for laboratories, studios and other learning that requires face-to-face instruction. Even as we straddle in-person and online instruction, we are strengthening our capacity to teach and learn in a virtual environment. Increasing these skills helps us meet the needs of our students and makes us more versatile as an institution.
This emphasis on online education, however, is not the sole indicator of our future. Our campus buildings and other facilities might be quiet now, but they remain the center of our academic scholarship, where hands-on learning, research, creativity, and extension and outreach continue. Campus life is, and will continue to be, part of the experience we offer at NMSU.
For generations, students have come to college seeking hands-on learning, the chance to work with graduate students and world-renowned faculty, and opportunities to socialize and learn from people with different perspectives. According to NMSU students who participated in a 2020 National Student Survey of Engagement, 81% of our seniors reported participating in at least one experiential learning activity (service-learning, research, internship, co-op or study abroad). These and other aspects of campus life are reasons why higher education continues to thrive. That will not change, and after the pandemic, we will again enjoy a vibrant campus life.
Prophesies abound regarding the future of higher education (Inside Higher Education, May 2020 and September 2020; Fitch Ratings December 2020, Forbes January 2021). Sadly, many of these predictions suggest that wealthy students will continue to enjoy a full college experience, but students from lower-income families may not do as well. Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, noted that the pandemic did not seem to affect high school graduation numbers last spring. But this past fall’s freshmen class was down 20% nationally, and fewer high school graduates, especially from low-income and minority schools, were able to go to college. These are the students served by the traditional land-grant institutions, such as NMSU, and our commitment to provide them with an opportunity to enjoy college life is unwavering.
We will also continue to develop our online presence. Classes in a hybrid format give our students the flexibility to attend class even when they cannot come to campus. Additionally, NMSU Online has an increasing catalog of degree programs. Both of these strategies allow us to serve people who lack access to our campus.
Another prediction for higher education is that many institutions will close their doors because of economic forces. We are not facing such a fate. Despite recent budget cuts, NMSU is financially sound. Three important revenue sources (tuition, research and state funds) are sound. Enrollment is steady, research is increasing, and the state budget forecast is more optimistic than it was six months ago. We are well-positioned for a bright future.