Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Lawmakers, Higher Education Board propose free in-state college tuition for New Mexico residents | Legislature | New Mexico Legislative Session

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s plan to offer free tuition to all New Mexico residents who attend state colleges may get a second chance.

A new proposal, backed by two Democratic lawmakers and the state Department of Higher Education, would cover tuition for up to 35,000 eligible students — regardless of their income status.

The plan would combine all of the state’s existing college scholarships into one aid pool, steeply increasing the funds available.

“The ultimate goal is to ensure college affordability and create an all-encompassing free college package that combines all scholarships for New Mexicans who wish to enroll,” said Rep. Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque, a co-sponsor of potential legislation lawmakers at the Interim Legislative Education Study Committee during a session on Monday.

For years, New Mexico has developed initiatives to cover a portion of tuition fees for state college and university students, including recent high school grads and adults. But the state has yet to commit enough money to meet Lujan Grisham’s goal of free tuition for all, which she first announced in 2019 as the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship.

The new proposal — which Garratt and her co-sponsor, Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, have not yet submitted — would cost $137.5 million, according to the Higher Education Department.

Lawmakers would need to approve $85.5 million, Garratt said.

The remaining $52 million would come from the Legislative Lottery grant program, which generates revenue from the sale of lottery tickets, Stephanie Montoya, a spokeswoman for the Higher Education Department, wrote in an email.

College Minister Stephanie Rodriguez said in September her agency was working on a budget proposal that would include the cost of “a free college for all.”

The aid would be available to any student pursuing a certificate of commerce, associate degree or bachelor’s degree, Rodriguez told lawmakers Monday.

Montoya confirmed that there would be no income requirements to apply for funding.

A student would need to maintain a 2.5 grade point average to receive the aid and take at least six credit hours per semester at a New Mexico state or tribal college. The aid would only benefit students who have not yet earned a bachelor’s degree.

Scholarships would be awarded for each semester but could be renewed if the student continued to meet the admission requirements.

Under the state’s current student aid programs, eligible New Mexico students have two choices. If they are pursuing an associate degree from a two-year college, they can apply for the Opportunity Scholarship, which covers the remaining tuition after all other government funding opportunities have been applied for.

The Legislative Lottery Scholarship, introduced in the mid-1990s, has provided up to 100 percent of tuition — and only 65 percent — for new high school graduates pursuing an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Together, the two scholarship programs serve around 17,600 students, according to the Higher Education Ministry.

But both faced challenges in attempting to serve all eligible disciples.

Under state law, 30 percent of the New Mexico Lottery’s gross revenue goes to the Lottery Scholarship Fund. But with ticket sales declining and tuition fees rising, the scholarship program is struggling to keep up with demand.

Lujan Grisham launched the Opportunity Scholarship in September 2019 as a $26 million program to cover tuition for up to 55,000 students initially applying for government grants and scholarships.

Legislature earmarked $17 million for the program during the 2020 legislative session, making it available only to two-year community college students. However, during a special meeting in June 2020, the fund was reduced to $5 million after government revenues collapsed amid the COVID-19 pandemic and falling oil prices.

Rodriguez said the Opportunity Scholarship was funded with $18 million in the 2021 legislative session.

Rep. Raymundo Lara, D-Chamberino, raised several questions about student eligibility for the proposed aid, noting that eligibility requirements differ for existing scholarship programs.

“I’m asking as a parent to a college student,” he said, triggering laughter. His son attends New Mexico State University.

After the meeting, Lara said the new plan “sounds like a good idea to bundle everything together.”

But he said he would like to see the admissions requirements “more elaborated. I worry about the clarity.”

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