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NM Legislature: What you need to know about free college

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s “moon shot” is a step closer to take off. 

As the 2020 legislative session nears, some university students across the state are hailing the governor’s proposed “Opportunity Scholarship” as a way to alleviate student debt and provide “every New Mexico student with an opportunity for higher education.” Among them, is the University of New Mexico’s student government, who passed a resolution last fall in support of the scholarship. 

But even with UNM and NMSU’s bilateral endorsement of the scholarship, the details are, as of the publication of this article, confuddled. 

Here’s what we know

The scholarship, as currently proposed by the governor,  would render college essentially free for eligible state residents. Recipients of the scholarship would only be able to use it for five years, according to a Higher Education Department (HED) factsheet

However, UNM’s Office of Institutional Analytics predicts 52% of students graduate at a six-year rate, and 48% at a five-year rate. 

The scholarship would have the same 2.5 GPA and 15-credit hour requirements as the lottery scholarship, according to HED Deputy Secretary Carmen López-Wilson. If a student wanted to use the scholarship at a four-year institution like UNM, the student must enroll within 16 months of graduation from a New Mexican high school (or a GED diploma). If not, the student would only be able to use it at a two-year institution, like Central New Mexico Community College (CNM). 

What we do not know: The long-term sustainability of the scholarship

For the 2020 fiscal year, New Mexico is expected to have a $2 billion budget surplus. It’s also expected that a substantial portion of educational funding in our state drips down from the Permian Basin’s oil and gas production. 

According to a report by the Las Cruces Sun-News, an oil boom gave the state the funding needed to launch the scholarship, along with a number of other initiatives.

But when the booms inevitably cease, causing some state legislators to worry about a stable source of funding for the scholarship. 

State Sen. Mimi Stewart said she would like an “alternative revenue source” — like a sales tax — for the upkeep of the scholarship. Stewart told the Las Cruces Sun-News, she “(wants) to find a revenue stream dedicated to (the scholarship).”

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Apprehension over consistent funding does not come without precedent. 

When the Lottery Scholarship entered New Mexican colleges nearly two decades ago, it covered 100% of students’ tuition. After five years of scholarship slashes, it now covers about 60 to 75% of tuition, dependent on ticket sales that year. 

The Opportunity Scholarship aims to be different. One expected outcome of the scholarship is a boost in enrollment due to increased access to higher education. 

As previously reported by the Daily Lobo, State Legislative Finance Committee chair John Arthur Smith warned of the unintended consequences of an enrollment surge. 

“(New Mexican colleges) 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, referring to an enrollment surge when the lottery scholarship was established.

Coupled with a lack of preparedness is the possibility of universities capitalizing on increased enrollment by raising tuition.

Knowing this, some lawmakers are advocating for strings attached to the scholarship to ensure this does not happen. 

A proposed Memorandum of Understanding would set limits on how much universities could raise tuition and would require universities to invest in “student-success initiatives” like tutoring or counseling. Whether or not this will happen will be left up to the Roundhouse. 

The 2020 legislative session begins on Jan. 21, 2020. New Mexico Secretary of Higher Education Kate O’Neill told the Daily Lobo if the scholarship is approved by the legislature, it is expected to go into effect on July 1, 2020. 

Alyssa Martinez is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at or on Twitter @amart447


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