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Bill would offer scholarships for older students

SANTA FE, N.M. — About 26,000 New Mexico college students get tuition help through the legislative lottery scholarship every year, but only those who started college shortly after high school are eligible.

Now a state lawmaker is pitching a program that could help older and other nontraditional students.

Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, has introduced the “New Mexico Reconnect Scholarship Act,” which would cover community college tuition and fees for certain residents. That includes students who are at least 24 years old, married, veterans, active military and those with legal dependents. They must have adjusted gross incomes below $36,000 and cannot already have an associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree.

Tallman said it could help an estimated 5,000 students statewide. It would serve only to close gaps left after counting a student’s other financial aid sources. His bill seeks $5.8 million from the general fund to cover the program in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

“We don’t have a lot of money to throw at it, but it’s a start,” he said. “It gets people talking about it.”

Tallman modeled his proposal after a similar program in Tennessee, and he consulted with officials at Central New Mexico Community College – the state’s largest community college – when drafting it.

Eight percent to 10 percent of students at CNM could benefit, according to Derrick Welch, senior director of business strategy at CNM.

Welch said the program would capture working-age adults with no college degree, whom he called “some of the most vulnerable citizens in New Mexico.”

“We’re really trying to target those people who are really in entry, low-wage positions in the workforce or maybe not even working at all – trying to get them to seek higher education as an option for improving their lives,” said Welch, who provided Tallman with some policy analysis assistance on the bill.

An American worker with an associate degree makes 18 percent more than a worker with a high school diploma but no college, according to median weekly earnings data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those with a bachelor’s degree make 67 percent more than those who completed only high school, according to the same 2016 figures.

Tallman said the “Reconnect Scholarship” could ultimately aid economic development efforts by improving the quality of New Mexico’s workforce.

“It’s one more thing we can do to get people better-educated and consequently get better jobs and be able to attract businesses,” he said.

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