In a recent ranking of state schools by the Rio Grande Foundation, Doña Ana Community College came out as the least cost per student in the state.

DACC not only beat out every other satellite campus of New Mexico State University, but every community college. In fact, it was half the cost of the most expensive community college. How did it achieve this, and can its apparent success be replicated elsewhere?

Five years ago, DACC was the third least expensive. Since then it has grown 37 percent in size, while its budget has only grown 31 percent. Counting inflation, the school’s cost per full-time enrollment dropped $346 to $6,796 per student.

As a point of comparison, the NMSU 4-year hub, also in Las Cruces, saw increased cost per student of $578 during the same period for a total cost per student of $13,012 (almost twice as much as DACC). While it is difficult to directly compare the costs of the four-year main campus with its community college affiliate, the differences in costs between the two parts of the institution give rise to many interesting questions:

What similar courses at the community college are duplicated in the university and do they cost different amounts? Is the quality of teachers and differing pay scales the issue? What role do facilities costs play? Could all duplicate programs be done in the manner of the community college at a lower cost?

To imagine the scale of savings to be realized from more closely following the DACC model, consider if NMSU’s costs had gone up by $250 less per student. With 13,435 students, that would generate total savings of $3,358,750 – enough money to pay for nearly 500 more students at the community college for a year.

Let’s say that we could move several thousand students from the university to the community college without affecting their costs per student – for every 500 students that took a year of classes at DACC rather than NMSU, an additional 457 students could attend DACC that year.

This of course raises many other difficult questions: who should be educated, should they be subsidized, should different people be subsidized at different rates and what should they be subsidized to study?

For many college graduates, the schooling process ends up not delivering positive returns, even though their educations were heavily subsidized. In economic terms, bad education investments misallocate taxpayer money, students’ tuition dollars, students’ time, as well as use up the labor of academics that might be productive in other sectors of the economy had they not been lured into the heavily subsidized academy.

Now, if we consider that NMSU costs four times as much for a degree than DACC (double the cost and twice as long) we ask if the average degree is worth four times as much as a two-year community college diploma? Perhaps it is, but since only 45 percent of NMSU students graduate after 6 years (55 percent graduate at some point after that or never graduate), we wonder if many of these students would not be better served by a two-year degree.

Clearly the complexity of these issues cannot be easily fleshed out in a short opinion piece, but this author wonders if the policy, because of the many large unknowns, can be properly managed through the political process in way that guarantees efficiencies throughout the higher education system.

That is why I’m proposing that New Mexico adopt a higher education voucher system that would enable students to shop around for the best price-quality package at different state schools. If they are thrifty, the voucher could be designed to offer cash back when the education costs less than the voucher. If it were based on current state average cost, DACC students might be able to get a significant check to that could be put towards book costs and time-intensive unpaid internships.

After all, our society – whether that means taxpayers, students, or employers – have limited resources to allocate to education. In a time of constrained or even falling budgets, policymakers must do everything possible to enhance efficiency. Understanding why one school is so much more efficient than another is worth a closer look.

Kevin Rollins is an adjunct fellow with New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.

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