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Merger merits consideration

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By Optic Editorial Board

Sen. John Arthur Smith is asking the state Higher Education Department to study whether it makes sense to merge New Mexico Highlands University with Luna Community College, and in our view, such a study would be worthwhile.

Yes, a merger would be complicated, as pointed out by Highlands President Jim Fries. But on the surface, at least, there would seem to be some significant benefits to moving in that direction.

Smith, a conservative Democrat from Deming, is putting forth the proposal as a way for the state to save money. He makes the argument that the state can’t afford to continue business as usual when it comes to higher education, particularly given the federal budget cuts that are likely on the horizon.

He says that placing Luna under Highlands’ umbrella would likely eliminate what he calls redundant administrative and other services. Combining the two institutions would eliminate the need for such things as two presidents, two finance vice presidents and two human resources departments. Given the potential for lost high paying jobs in this area, any study on a potential merger should include a look at the impact on the local economy.

But there are potentially other benefits from a merger. Too often, schools compete for students because having more students translates into more dollars for the institution.

Combining the institutions would likely eliminate the competition for students and result in students being channeled into the programs they need. It would give Highlands and Luna the opportunity to merge and hopefully bolster their remedial programs for students who aren’t prepared for college level work when they arrive. It would hopefully result in a smoother transition for students who start off at Luna but who want to go on to earn a four-year degree from Highlands.

And it would be a way for the two institutions to deal with the shrinking population in our service area, which is resulting in downward enrollment trends for both Luna and Highlands.

It’s too early to say whether combining these two institutions would benefit the area and its students. But it is certainly worth studying, particularly given the drama that’s playing out at Luna Community College right now.

Regardless of how this ends, one thing is certain. If a decision is ultimately made to combine the two institutions, it will likely take years to make it happen, given the complexities.