Raising Standards at UNM: A Path to Excellence or Academic Apartheid?


#OurUNM, an umbrella group of student groups advocating for more student involvement in policy at UNM, joined with the New Mexico Coalition for Equality and Justice, Raza Graduate Student Association, Lambda Theta Phi Latin Fraternity, the Project for New Mexico Graduates of Color, and ENLACE Diverse in views to host a panel this past Tuesday on the campus of UNM called “Exclusion Masked as Excellence.” A packed crowd of UNM administrators, students and faculty listened as panelists made up of faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students discussed new rules and requirements that would limit access and success of poor students and students of color at New Mexico’s public universities.

Panelist and doctoral graduate student Virginia Necochea pointed to New Mexico’s Lottery Scholarship—which makes post-secondary education a possibility for many poor students of color—as a particular sore spot. It recently proposed to raise its eligibility requirements from a 2.5 GPA to a 2.75 GPA on top of a mandatory 15 credit hours. Her research at New Mexico State University concluded that with these requirements an expected 68% of poor students of color who received the scholarship would experience failure.

Virginia Necochea pointed out how a decision to raise the GPA requirement for the New Mexico lottery scholarship will disproportionately effect poor students of color. Photo by Nick Estes
Virginia Necochea pointed out how a decision to raise the GPA requirement for the New Mexico lottery scholarship will disproportionately effect poor students of color. Photo by Nick Estes

Undergraduate students from #OurUNM, Manuel Lopez and Cecy Velasco, spoke about lacking achievement and poor graduation rates across New Mexico and in Albuquerque as especially concerning. Albuquerque graduation rates, they said, were significantly lower than the statewide average with American Indian students the lowest (56% average graduation rate across the state and 47% in Albuquerque).

If UNM raised GPA standards, only two predominantly white school districts in Albuquerque would graduate a significant majority of students who would qualify for admissions. These numbers reflect the state of public education that is continually defunded by one of the poorest states in the nation, she argued.

Two UNM undergraduate students from #OurUNM, Mannuel Lopez and Cecy Velasco explained that only two predominately white school districts would benefit from raised standards. Photo by Nick Estes
Two UNM undergraduate students from #OurUNM, Manuel Lopez and Cecy Velasco, explained that only two predominately white school districts would benefit from raised standards. Photo by Nick Estes

And eligibility for the Lottery Scholarship becomes nearly impossible for poor students of color, they concluded. Velasco said, “Low-income families—more than anyone else—support the Lottery Scholarship, but [New Mexico] wants to take it away from them.”

Lopez and Velasco also highlighted the fact that New Mexico ranked last in the nation for public education funding and achievement. Graduate student Jorge Garcia observed that New Mexico cut about $5800 per student from 2008-2012—one of the highest education cuts when compared to other states.

In Q & A, audience member and New Mexico State Senator Gerald Ortiz y Pino offered an observation to panelists that UNM might be sending students to College of New Mexico—a community college in Albuquerque—where low-performing students might “prove themselves” before entering UNM. Panelist and Professor of Africana Studies Dr. Jamal Martin responded by saying that leveling community college education as a response to exclusionary policies was a form of “academic apartheid.”

Graduate student Chris Ramirez reminded audience members that comparing public university education versus community college-level education reflected certain forms of “elitism.” He went on to say that 70% of UNM scholarships were based on merit, as compared to 30% of scholarships based on need. Ramirez concluded that financial opportunities remained open mostly to “rich white kids.”

Many of the success and failure rates of domestic students of color, graduate student and panelist Santosh Chandreshekar noted, were unfairly compared to international students of color, especially at the graduate level. Recruitment and success of international students to boost diversity numbers at UNM, he said, pitted them against and silenced the need for more recruitment of underrepresented populations like Native Americans and students of color.

Panelist Dr. Nancy López said that while “school reinforces inequalities, it can be a site of transformation.”

At the end of the discussion, it became profoundly clear that most audience members’ concerns were those of students of color who found their backgrounds not represented in recent proposals from UNM to raise entry requirements and standards. United around the cause of changing the university—reflective of New Mexico’s current lacking, substandard educational funding and achievement rates—a strong message and sentiment for better institutional inclusion standards prevailed.


  1. A quick clarification – the GPA still has not been raised in terms of qualifying for the Lottery Scholarship. Although groups, including ASUNM, campaigned to increase the GPA from a 2.5 to a 2.75. What did increase was the course load – students now have to take 15 hours instead of 12 hours. Statistically the hour change will have a greater negative impact on students than the GPA, combined increase in hours and GPA even more so. NMSU data showed that increases in both GPA and courseload would lead to a 68% failure attainment rate for the Lottery Scholarship. This was based on 2010 Freshman cohorts at NMSU and quoted from a LESC memo dated Aug. 2010. UNM will probably witness similar rates. This is why people need to understand the data and statistics that demonstrate without doubt that students of color and low-income students are most affected when requirements are increased. This is NOT saying that students of color/low-income students are not capable. This pattern reflects the inequitable educational system firmly in place in the US – not all students are afforded the same education.

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