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Governor signs bill expanding New Mexico free college program

Mar 4, 2022

Source: The Santa Fe New Mexican

The phone calls Greg Romero began receiving about Senate Bill 140 made him realize its potential.

The legislation essentially would offer free college tuition to New Mexico students at in-state schools.

Romero, president of the Associated Students of the University of New Mexico, knew that, he said, but he didn’t fully grasp the measure’s power until he heard from old friends who had long abandoned their college studies to work or support their families and were suddenly planning to return to school.

“They’d say, ‘I can go back to college now. I can get that degree I started and stopped because I had to go to work because I had a family,’ ” Romero said Friday, moments after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the legislation into law.

SB 140, an expansion of the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, will make it possible for many New Mexico residents to attend college tuition-free. Funds included in the state budget for the program would cover all tuition and fees for degree-seeking undergraduate students attending any two- or four-year state or tribal college or university in New Mexico.

Before signing the bill at Western New Mexico University in Silver City, Lujan Grisham said the legislation will not only give more residents the chance to seek higher education but also will ease a burden way too many New Mexicans currently carry: student debt.

“Saddling students with insurmountable debt means they can’t start businesses, can’t buy houses; they don’t have real choices about their future,” Lujan Grisham said in an interview after the signing.

That debt creates “an incredible strain” on those students trying to get ahead after college, she said.

The Federal Reserve estimates in the second quarter of 2021, Americans owed $1.73 trillion in student loans. A 2020 Institute for College Access and Success report using 2018-19 data said the average student debt for New Mexicans is close to $21,000.

The governor noted a college degree can lead to higher-paying jobs, even in trades like carpentry, electrical work and truck driving. Earning a certificate or degree in such trades can lead to jobs that pay well over $100,000 a year, she said. “That’s a whole lot of money you’re going to make.”

Santa Fe Community College President Becky Rowley said in today’s workforce, “most students need some type of education or training to be able to get a job in a field that will provide them with some sort of upward mobility and a really productive and well-paying career.”

SB 140 will allow students to go to school part time if they have other obligations or return to school if they dropped out at some point, Rowley said. She added she believes the scholarship will lead to more New Mexico residents enrolling in colleges.

The bill does have eligibility requirements. Students would have to take between six and 18 credit hours during the fall and spring semesters. They also would have to maintain a 2.5 grade-point average.

Students who drop out of a college program or skip a semester would lose access to the funding. And the scholarship is not available to New Mexico residents who already have earned a bachelor’s degree.

Lujan Grisham first introduced a free college tuition plan in 2019. The proposal, estimated at the time to cost $26 million, met with some resistance by administrators and legislators who thought college costs might balloon as a result.

Lawmakers allocated $17 million for the program in the 2020 regular session but made it available only to community college students. During a special session in June, the amount was reduced to $10 million in the face of a revenue decline largely caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, over 10,000 scholarships have been awarded, according to the state Higher Education Department.

House Bill 2, the state budget bill, includes $63 million in nonrecurring funds to get the scholarship program going in July, according to the bill’s fiscal impact report. The program also would draw another $24.5 million from existing college endowments. The governor has not yet signed the budget.

Julia Furry, director of the auto technologies department at Santa Fe Community College, said the new scholarship is “huge” for students who feel they have been unable to afford to go to college.

“Now, with this Opportunity Scholarship, it’s going to take that stress off of a student,” Furry said. “For them it will be, ‘Oh good, I have school paid for. I don’t have to hold down two jobs. I can focus on my education, and the end result is a great degree and good-paying job.’ “