Source: The Santa Fe New Mexican
The decision to make college virtually tuition-free for most New Mexicans will pay dividends for the state for years.
That is, so long as the state can keep paying tuition and fees while also reining in the urge of college and university bosses to increase tuition.
The plan, signed into law last week by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, is far-reaching.
First, it recognizes post-secondary education is almost a requirement for success in the modern world. Just as a high school diploma once paved the way to individual success, at least some college is deemed necessary by employers. The trouble is, college is expensive. That leaves too many people behind. By covering tuition and fees for almost all students, the essentials for success are put within reach.
No more taking out oppressive student loans — the average college debt in New Mexico is $21,000. No more having to work full time and go to school part time. No more deciding whether to cover tuition costs or pay rent.
Tuition and fees, for those who qualify, will be covered. And many people will qualify — in fiscal year 2023, the state estimates some 35,000 students will be able to take advantage of free tuition to further their education.
Qualifying requirements also make sense for New Mexico students.
This program isn’t limited to kids straight out of high school. Returning students can use it for career training certificates, associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees. Students can attend college part time. It is structured so federal aid, such as Pell Grants, can be used after tuition and fees are covered, allowing students to use federal dollars for books, materials, housing, meals, transportation and child care.
Adults who already have bachelor’s degrees aren’t eligible, but nearly everyone else is.
This puts students from all income levels and walks of life on equal footing and increases opportunity. Because, as New Mexicans know, education always has been the path to success.
In the early days of New Mexico statehood in Northern New Mexico, rural students would move to El Rito or Las Vegas, N.M., attending what would someday become Northern New Mexico College and New Mexico Highlands University. Many trained to become teachers or school administrators. Those educators then would raise children who became doctors, engineers, lawyers, college professors; success was passed down, one generation to the next.
Senate Bill 140 expanded the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship. Money is included in the state budget, House Bill 2, to pay tuition and fees for degree-seeking undergraduate students attending any two- or four-year state or tribal college or university in the state.
Students must take between six and 18 credit hours during the fall and spring semesters and maintain a 2.5 grade-point average. Dropouts or students who skip a semester would lose funding access.
HB 2 includes $75 million for the scholarships, including $63 million in nonrecurring federal dollars to get the program going in July, according to the bill’s fiscal impact report. Another $150 million in federal funds is being used to rejuvenate the Lottery Scholarship, which goes to recent high school graduates.
Going forward, a source of dedicated, recurring dollars needs to be identified. The state will not always be rolling in dough because of federal pandemic dollars or surging oil and gas prices.
In this moment, though, New Mexico can take pride in offering adults opportunity — an education that will help them, and their children, succeed. And when individuals do well, so does the greater community. That’s why expanded college access promises to pay dividends not just for degree-seeking students, but for all of New Mexico.