SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico's high school juniors would have to apply to at least one college or commit to other post-high school plans as part of a proposed graduation requirement that would be the first statewide push of its kind in the U.S.
The proposal is scheduled for its first legislative hearing on Thursday. If it eventually becomes law, New Mexico would be the first state to require post-high school plans of students, said Jennifer Zinth, who is the director of high school and STEM research at the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based group that tracks education policy.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Nate Gentry, a Republican, and Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, a Democrat, would make it mandatory for public school juniors to apply to at least one two- or four-year college. Exceptions would be made for students who can prove they have committed to military service, a vocational program, or work upon graduation in an apprenticeship or internship. Parents and school guidance counselors would have to approve of the students' plans.
The measure was drafted with the aim of reversing declines in college enrollment across the state, which fell nearly 14 percent from 155,065 enrolled students in 2010 to 133,830 in 2016.
Ivey-Soto, an attorney and former educator, said it also could encourage prospective first-generation college students to seriously consider getting into a higher education institution.
"There's a reason we call graduation commencement because it's the beginning of their future," Ivey-Soto said. "Let's take that seriously."
The New Mexico bill is modeled after a similar requirement that Gentry said was put in place for high school students in San Marcos, Texas, more than a decade ago. And last year in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made post-high school plans a graduation requirement — saying students had to either have plans to enter the military, take part in a "gap year" program, get a job offer or apprenticeship, or have an acceptance letter from a college.
The New Mexico proposal has received a mixed response from educators, with some questioning whether the bill that asks for no extra funding will further strain schools without enough counselors to give students the attention they need to develop post-graduation plans.
"We just need to make sure that the schools are funded well enough that there is a counselor or a person who can help each student," said Betty Patterson, president of the National Education Association-New Mexico union representing more than 8,500 school employees.
The bill seeks to boost the state's college enrollment rate in the hopes the state would have a better educated workforce. That could attract more companies to New Mexico, where the unemployment rate is 6.5 percent, the second highest in the U.S. and more than two percentage points higher than the national rate.
While students would not be required to attend college, Gentry thinks requiring them to fill out applications will make them more likely to do so. Applying to the flagship University of New Mexico costs $25.
Many of the state's community colleges don't charge application fees and applying online can take as little as 20 minutes.
At the Academy for Technology and the Classics charter school in Santa Fe, Principal Susan Lumley said she was wary of the bill if it didn't come with extensive support for helping students apply to college.
The school in Santa Fe graduated 43 students last year and all but one enrolled in college. The only one who did not enroll in college went to a vocational school for tattoo artists.
"You've got to provide the support to make that happen," Lumley said. "First-generation kids, for a lot of them, the reason they don't go to college is they have no idea how to even start that process."