The number of American Indians enrolled in the state's 25 public colleges and universities is rising, a New Mexico Higher Education Department study found, but the department still is failing to retain native students in four-year programs.

The study, released earlier this summer, found a higher percent of American Indians earn associate degrees and certificates in New Mexico than in any other state, but completion of four-year or graduate-level programs drops off.

"The percentage of bachelor's, graduate and professional degrees attained are roughly 40 percent of where they should be," Secretary of Higher Education Reed Dasenbrock said.

The number of American Indians who earn bachelor's degrees in New Mexico has increased 34 percent in the last nine years from 204 in 1998 to 273 in 2007, according to HED data. The increase, however, is sluggish, Dasenbrock said.

"At this rate of increase, we will reach proportionality in 2086," he said.

Proportionality occurs when the percent of American Indian students enrolled in four-year programs equals the percent of American Indians in the state's population, said Matt Martinez, director of education access and equity for the HED. American Indians comprise about 10.5 percent of the population.

"We're almost there when we talk about two-year degrees and certificates," Martinez said. "When it comes to four-year schools and the achievement of bachelor's degrees, that drops off significantly."

The proportionality gap is 1 percent in two-year programs, or 1,200 students short of the HED's desired enrollment. The gap widens to more than 5 percent in four-year programs.

By contrast, there is no gap in the enrollment of Hispanic students, Martinez said. The HED reports Hispanic students are proportionately represented across the education spectrum.

The June study found American Indians comprise 9.5 percent of the state's 130,388 college students, with the highest counts at community colleges, university branches and tribal colleges.

Enrollment in non-tribal colleges is highest at the University of New Mexico Gallup branch, which boasts a 76 percent native student population. American Indians make up 36 percent of the student population at New Mexico State University Grants branch and 26 percent at San Juan Community College.

About 2,200 American Indian students, or about a quarter of the 10,000 American Indian students statewide, are enrolled in the state's four tribal colleges.

"Tribal colleges offer a different experience," Dasenbrock said. "Many students choose them because of proximity, especially with the high gas prices, but I think students ought to get whatever education they can."

Despite the small numbers, native enrollment has jumped more than 20 percent across the state since 2004.

"Enrollment is increasing, but not at the rates we would like to see," Martinez said. "The retention efforts also are lacking, meaning students who do enroll aren't finishing. The bad news is that they're not completing degrees. We need good teachers, doctors and Indian lawyers. We need people in those professional fields, and the need is not being met."

Enrollment and retention problems are not exclusive to the American Indian population, Martinez said, but the gap is more significant. One common obstacle is geography, especially in isolated reservation communities, he said.

"Community colleges and tribal colleges are local," he said. "That matters if students have families or other obligations that require they stay local, versus transferring to larger schools."

Another reason students don't seek a higher education is an eagerness to enter the work force, Martinez said.

Higher education officials are pushing to reach proportionality by 2009 by employing a series of recruitment and retention strategies.

The HED is backing several initiatives that would make education affordable and accessible. It is pushing dual-credit programs that allow students to earn college credits while in high school and distance-education programs in which students can attend online classes offered through four-year institutions.

The HED also encourages colleges and universities to recruit American Indian students, a move that can increase schools' budgets through the Native American-serving Non-tribal Institutions Program, a federal grant system that awards funding to schools with native populations topping 10 percent.

Only three New Mexico institutions, including San Juan Community College, have received this grant, Martinez said. Grant money can be used to hire new faculty, expand degree programs or otherwise support native students.

"We have the population in New Mexico to lead the nation in this path," he said. "By our mere population and geographic (location), we're positioned well to be a role model nationwide."

Alysa Landry: alandry@daily-times.com