UNM-Taos has increased enrollment for so many consecutive semesters, it seemed inevitable to sustain such dramatic numbers. It was beginning to look like 2013 might be that long-overdue time of reckoning.

All across the nation, colleges and universities were braced for a slowdown as the job market improved and students began to return to work. Compounding the problem was a trend to, of all things, defund crucial financial aid programs such as Pell grants and the Lottery Scholarship, and even question the viability of the unique role community colleges play in higher education, particularly in small, rural, underserved and ethnically diverse communities.

Sharpening the edge of this overall anxiety was the fact that funding for higher education in our state is tied to enrollment numbers, so that a drop in enrollment compared to the previous year could bring on a reduction in already strapped funding, no matter what broad and uncontrollable trends were responsible for the downturn.

But the collapse didn’t happen here. While enrollment in every other college and university in New Mexico either remained relatively flat or actually decreased this fall, UNM-Taos came in with an 8.9 percent increase, the highest recorded in the state and one of the highest in the country.

Because of this, UNM-Taos made the cover story of Community College Week, a respected national journal of higher education with a circulation of 30,000.

In his special report, Editor Paul Bradley noted that “Colleges that will truly thrive (in the coming years) will be innovators located in areas of rapid population growth, with large minority populations and close ties to their communities. They will look like the University of New Mexico-Taos, a small, rural, two-year college that has a service area of more than 2,000 square miles. ... Since 2009, enrollment (there) has increased 21.9 percent.”

“In many ways we are the center of our community,” UNM-Taos Executive Director Kate O’Neill explained in the article. “The role of the community college is key to this region. We’re really trying to meet their needs.”  

So once again it comes down to the same question of how long can we keep this up, especially since, side by side with the highest growth rate, we have the second-lowest amount of square footage per student in New Mexico.

Part of the answer is that, thanks to the foresight of the Taos mayor and town council, we recently acquired the 26,000-square-foot Taos Convention Center buildings in the center of town, and although it will take several years and several million dollars to make the facilities fully functional for the college, we are going to great lengths to keep up with demand.

As far as that demand is concerned, it continues to be strong. By the beginning of UNM-Taos winter break Dec. 23, roughly half of the expected incoming students had already enrolled for the spring 2014 semester.