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Highlands seeks to take over college

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By David Giuliani

Highlands University took its first official step toward taking over the College of Santa Fe — a major expansion for the local four-year institution.

The acquisition is contingent upon the approval of the state Legislature and the state Board of Finance, among other agencies.

After an hourlong closed session, Highlands’ Board of Regents voted 3-0 in favor of a letter of intent, which gives the university a 120-day window to buy the financially struggling Santa Fe school.

The board’s action comes three days after the College of Santa Fe’s regents approved the same letter.

The school was appraised last year at $52.7 million.

“This does not seem like an exorbitant value for 100 acres plus 42 buildings of various types in the middle of Santa Fe between St. Michael’s Drive and Siringo Road,” Highlands said in a statement.

Highlands would take over the College of Santa Fe’s debt, which has a face value of $35.3 million. Highlands officials believe that they can reduce the amount through negotiations with lenders.

Highlands is expected to make $3 million available to the College of Santa Fe to help it get through its spring semester. The university will have financial oversight during that time.

The acquisition process will begin with Highlands’ purchase of 20 acres of the 100-acre campus. Those 20 acres have been mortgaged to Baltimore-based Laureate Education Inc., with an outstanding balance of $2.2 million. Recent appraisals indicate that land has a value of $7.9 million. The regents voted to have Highlands negotiate for the vacant land to release the mortgage from Laureate.

If all goes as planned, Highlands would have control of the college by the fall semester. If the deal fails, the university would still have the 20 acres, which officials said could be “strategic” in Highlands’ long-term plans to expand services in Santa Fe.

Highlands President Jim Fries said the university would seek the necessary approvals in the next days.

“This comes down to an effort by Highlands University to acquire the assets of the College of Santa Fe to make sure there is a continued four-year college presence in Santa Fe,” he told the regents.

He said no final decision has been made on tuition rates for College of Santa Fe students and that officials hadn’t settled on a name for the school after the takeover, although he said he preferred College of Santa Fe-Highlands University.

Noting that he was the only Las Vegas resident on the Board of Regents, Jesus Lopez said he had heard a lot of support for the acquisition from community members.

“I haven’t heard any opposition to this,” he said.

Lopez gave particular praise to John Loehr, a former regent who attended the closed session of the board. Lopez said he relied to a “great extent” on Loehr’s advice.

During the public input period, Javier Gonzales, the outgoing chairman of the regents, specifically asked Loehr for his thoughts.

Loehr responded that he believed the acquisition was in the public’s best interest.

“The action you have take is courageous and constructive,” he said.

The College of Santa Fe reports that it has 600 traditional students, while Highlands said it has 2,334 students throughout its system.

The College of Santa Fe started in 1859 by the Lasallian Brothers, a teaching order of the Catholic Church.

According to a Highlands statement, a more competitive tuition structure at the Santa Fe college can maintain and enhance its programs in fine arts and film, which are major components of New Mexico’s economy.

Highlands said it wants to expand its current program offerings in Santa Fe and bring upper-division and graduate programs in education, business and social work to greater numbers of New Mexico students.