WHEN Fidel Trujillo was leaving high school, he was a much sought-after commodity. President of his student council, on the basketball and track teams, Trujillo's grades brought many offers from universities eager to enlist a high-scoring young Hispanic man.
Recruiters from West Point came calling, as did major regional colleges such as the University of Nevada and Arizona State. But he opted instead for a college smaller than many city high schools with an uneven academic record and far from wealthy, barely a half-hour drive from his home in the rural Mora Valley.
This year Trujillo was chosen by fellow students to give the commencement speech to his graduating class at New Mexico Highlands University, a slot usually reserved for an out-of-town celebrity. "Here you know you can relate to people, share values and beliefs," he said. "You come and meet new people, but if you ever get hungry for mama's tortillas and beans, it's right down the road."
The normal rules of American life do not apply in Las Vegas, a small and eminently colourful Old West city, not to be confused with the gambling giant of Nevada. Independence day is celebrated with a Catholic mass, followed by caballeros (horsemen) and mariachi bands, and presided over by La Reina de la Fiesta, the local beauty queen.
Highlands exudes the character of a heavily Hispanic community, where families proudly trace their roots to the Spanish settlers of the 17th century. Nearly three-quarters of its students are Hispanic, often from remote rural ranching communities. Local history, language and culture suffuse the curriculum, and "reinforcing cultural identity" is part of the university's mission statement.
Highlands is described as a hotbed of academic politics, full of cultural cross-currents. Staff complain of low pay and an unsympathetic administration, and, in one symptom of their discontent, voted to unionise for the first time this year.
But the main challenge at Highlands is the same as at other Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) in the United States: not only getting Hispanic students into college, but keeping them there. Under its open enrolment policy, Highlands accepts almost any student who completes high school, but some 40 per cent drop out in the first year, and the attrition continues all the way to graduation.
Hispanics, in part because of new waves of immigration, are seen as a coming force in US cultural and political life. But high drop-out rates in schools and low completion rates in college have raised fears that they are missing out on the main stepping-stone to the middle class - higher education. The end of affirmative action programmes, in particular, has sharply reduced the numbers entering top law and medical schools in California.
Echoing that concern, Congress this year is expected to vote a small but significant increase in grants to HSIs, defined as colleges where enrolment is 25 per cent Hispanic or more. While the extra money is only measured in the millions, it elevates these colleges, about 200 of them, closer to the status of the historically black universities, which played an early role in developing a black professional class.
Highlands is a state-funded university with about 3,000 students, smaller than many city high schools and a midget alongside the 20,000-strong University of New Mexico, the state's major institution. Sixty-seven per cent of students are Hispanic, an unusually high proportion, with nearly 10 per cent native American, and 6 per cent African-American.
Having started life 100 years ago as a teachers' college, Highlands is woven into the fabric of the local community like few other institutions, in an area with a long history of poverty. From the mother of three working the bar at a local restaurant, to the majority of teachers in the surrounding schools, virtually everyone is or has been a Highlands student, or is related to one.
But in a place where La Fiesta de la Hispanidad is a major event on the student calendar, and the minority is the majority, Highlands is still struggling to keep them in the university system.
Figures published last week in the Daily Optic, Las Vegas's local newspaper, showed that only 5 per cent of entering students earned a degree within four years, the worst track record in the state. After ten years, barely 30 per cent have graduated.
Like other Hispanic-serving institutions, Highlands has a high proportion of students, such as Trujillo, who are among the first generation in their families to go to college. Many are married, and may drop out under pressure to find a job or to care for children or elderly relatives in a Catholic culture that places high value on the extended family. They come from small village schools with few libraries and computers.
President Selino Rael says Highlands labours under an image that because it is known as a Hispanic institution, it is somehow less than first rate. But he and others insist that the university, where classes are cheap and 90 per cent of students qualify for state financial assistance, has a special mission.
While Highlands has to deal with many students woefully unprepared for college life, staff say it offers a chance to those who otherwise would have no chance of getting a degree. "If we are going to prepare our local citizens to participate in the economic future, in social and cultural development, they need education," Mr Rael said.