New Mexico Announces Groundbreaking Free College Program

 September 18, 2019
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New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a plan Wednesday to make the state’s 29 public colleges and universities tuition-free for all residents, regardless of income — a program that would be the first of its kind in the U.S.

The governor’s office said the scheme would help roughly 55,000 students and would begin in the fall 2020 semester. The New York Times, which first broke the news of the ambitious plan, noted that the proposal still requires passage by the state legislature — currently controlled by the Democrats, Grisham’s party.

“This program is an absolute game-changer for New Mexico,” the governor said in a statement. “In the short term, we’ll see better enrollment, better student success. In the long run, we’ll see improved economic growth, improved outcomes for New Mexican workers and families and parents.”

Unlike New York state’s no-tuition program, which requires that a student’s family earns less than $125,000, this program, dubbed the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, would be free for students of all income levels. Like more limited programs in other states, the New Mexico plan offers funds in the form of “last-dollar” scholarships — meaning they’ll only cover the gap after other aid is applied.

And while some states do subsidize tuition for two-year community colleges in certain cases, New Mexico’s inclusion of public four-year institutions for all students would be unique.

New Mexico might be more ripe than other states for such blanket coverage. About 65% of its undergraduates are among the nation’s neediest students, the New York Times said. Plus, its tuition costs are lower than the national average, making the plan more feasible. In-state residents are currently charged $7,556 to attend the University of New Mexico, for example.

Grisham’s program would be similar to New York’s in one sense: It stops short of covering all expenses beyond tuition. A New Mexico resident might receive a tuition-free education, for instance, but would still have to cover secondary — but significant — costs, such as room and board, books and equipment.

That shortfall could leave students still needing to borrow student loans in New Mexico, albeit in smaller amounts. About 54% of 2016-2017 graduates in the state left school with an average education debt of $21,237, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.

Here’s some more fine print on New Mexico’s program:

  • It would be open to all recent high school graduates, including undocumented immigrants, according to the New York Times report.
  • Adults returning to school at a community college are also eligible for aid.
  • There is a “last-dollar” component, as students would first exhaust federal grant programs and existing New Mexico grant options before dipping into this new fund.
  • Students would also have to register — and maintain — a college grade point average of 2.5 or above to receive aid annually.

New Mexico plans to cover the program’s cost — estimated at $25 million to $35 million annually — with the state’s oil production revenues.

Nationally, free college for all has become a presidential campaign refrain. Contenders Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have each unveiled cost-free college proposals on the trail. Other hopefuls have weighed in on the debate too.

Michael Kitchen contributed to this report.

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