She described it as a "moon shot."

On Wednesday Sept. 18, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that her administration will request the state legislature to make 2-year and 4-year public colleges and universities free for New Mexico residents. If approved by the legislature, it is expected to go into effect July 1, 2020, said New Mexico Secretary of Higher Education Kate O’Neill.

"Everything we want to do in New Mexico begins with higher education," Lujan Grisham told the crowd gathered at Central New Mexico Community College for the Higher Education Summit. 



The “New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship” would be available to students “with a maintained minimum GPA,” and after “enrolling in a public, post-secondary institution,” according to a press release from the governor's office.

“In terms of getting folks to continue in school, getting them to come back to school and getting them to get the training they need to be able to enter the workforce so that we can move New Mexico forward,” O’Neill said.

Lujan Grisham did not say how the scholarship would be paid for and declined to give Daily Lobo reporters further comment after her speech. However, much of education funding in New Mexico relies on oil and gas production in the Permian Basin in the southeastern part of the state.

New Mexico is expected to have a budget surplus in excess of $2 billion for the 2020 fiscal year.

CNM President Kathy Winograd, who serves on the Denver Branch of the Board of Directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, said that relying heavily on oil and gas money to fund this program is “a little scary and unpredictable. So, I hope that we have a backup plan and that we are thoughtful about what happens when those dollars actually do start declining.”

“The devil is in the details on that,” State Legislative Finance Committee chair John Arthur Smith told the Daily Lobo.

Smith, who was also concerned about the reliability of the bust and boom oil and gas industry, brought up the “unintended consequences” of the lottery scholarship. Smith said that the lottery legislation initially caused an influx of incoming students enrolling into the big three schools, especially UNM. The big school's enrollment influx also caused a decline or stagnation at community colleges, according to Smith.

“But what happened is you enrolled a bunch of people that were not academically prepared for higher education yet and, as it turned out, the attrition rate was phenomenal,” Smith said.

Smith also brought up the possibility of UNM raising student fees and tuition costs as a result of this plan.

Back at CNM, Winograd explained that her school has not raised student fees when tuition was decreased or was held steady in the past.

“We have purposely not put that on our fee structure just because it is very difficult for our students. But institutions have financial situations that they have to take care of and faculty that deserve salaries that respect the job that they are doing,” Winograd said.

Winograd said all of the higher education institutions struggle with how to balance their budgets.

“Hopefully what we will do is try to figure out how to use our financial aid in ways that help our students pick up those kinds of resources like housing, fees and books so that we make it truly affordable for students, not just free tuition.”

The story broke around 8 a.m. in the New York Times and seems to have caught some by surprise. 

Mathew Munoz, Associate Director of the Office of Government & Community Relations at UNM, said Wednesday's announcement was the first he had heard about the plan.

The Associated Students of UNM (ASUNM), the undergraduate student government, didn't know about the tuition plan until today. ASUNM Director of Communications Amanda Perea said their office had received a phone call on Wednesday morning from the governor’s office informing them of this announcement.

“It is important to make higher education not only a priority but also accessible to all students so that when they attend class, they can focus on their education instead of how their tuition will be compensated,” Perea wrote in an email. “It brings me joy to see our leaders invest in New Mexico’s future with this proposal.”

Justin Garcia is the Editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at editorinchief@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @Just516garc 

Lissa Knudsen is a beat reporter for the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @lissaknudsen