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Editorial: The nation is watching as NM strives for fiscal balance on promise of free college

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s bid to offer free college for New Mexico students is a bold, impressive plan that could help tens of thousands of our state’s residents get an affordable education and open up their professional potential.

But it’s clear that crafting a system that’s functional and sustainable will require some skilled tightrope walking.

As Journal writer Ryan Boetel reported Sept. 19, the governor is calling on state legislators to set up a fund to cover the gap left after New Mexico students avail themselves of other financial aid, including the New Mexico Lottery scholarship, which currently covers about 60% of tuition for qualified students. Lujan Grisham’s proposal would also cover fees.

The Opportunity Scholarship would be available to qualified students attending two- or four-year state colleges within 16 months of graduating high school, as well as to New Mexico adults returning to school at two-year institutions.

The plan is starting off with some clear boundaries, which is a good thing. It will largely align with hard-won requirements from the lottery, requiring students to take a full course load (12 hours at two-year colleges, 15 hours at four-year universities) and maintain a 2.5 grade point average.

Unlike the current lottery scholarship, students will have to apply for financial aid on the front end – a challenge since only 65% of students now fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), in great part because of its difficult bureaucrat-ese and their immigration status.

So it’s a proactive move by the N.M. Public Education Department to challenge the state’s K-12 schools the same day of the governor’s announcement to get 80% of N.M. students filling out the infamous FAFSA. Ensuring students get all the federal aid they qualify for will help stretch state dollars further.

The governor estimates the new fund would help around 55,000 students and cost an estimated $25 million to $35 million a year, affordable, she says, because of the Permian Basin oil and gas boom.

It’s exciting, no doubt about it.

The fund should motivate more high school graduates to enroll in college, because while the lottery scholarship covers a solid chunk of tuition, it no longer covers it all and has never covered the hefty student fees.The program might also help convince a few more of our highest-achieving high schoolers to stay in state for college; home looks better with what amounts to a four-year full ride.

And the return-to-community-college aspect of the scholarship is particularly heady – imagine the potential impact on single parents, aspiring entrepreneurs or people looking for a career change.

Especially with all eyes on New Mexico – Lujan Grisham’s announcement made national news, from The Hill to Rolling Stone – it’s essential legislators and the governor get this right.

Potential pitfalls

On the list of concerns, building for sustainability is top of mind. No energy boom lasts forever, and tuition creep has been an issue under the lottery scholarship. Every pot of money, even from the Permian, is finite, so lawmakers might consider establishing a permanent fund, as they are with early education, to make sure that when the wells run dry the tuition aid doesn’t dry up as well.

While a cost estimate of what the state might have to pay has been presented, detailed analysis is needed. The multimillion-dollar price estimate might cover tuition and fees, but what about the amount needed for additional/improved infrastructure, faculty and staff, etc? What safeguards will be implemented to keep tuition increases in check? Every increase costs the state and makes a New Mexico degree less feasible to out-of-state students. (Lawmakers actually had to decouple the lottery scholarship from tuition and make it a flat dollar amount to combat this.)

And it is essential to ensure the N.M. Lottery is continuing to maximize its contribution to its scholarship fund – that’s why we have a lottery in the first place, after all.

Another concern is non-college-ready likely students will make up a significant portion of those taking advantage of the program, with many of them dropping out far before they graduate.

Each of these issues needs to be addressed; New Mexicans should have the fullest picture possible.

Then there’s the oil and gas connection itself. The idea of tuition-free college for all wouldn’t be possible without the Permian Basin. Meanwhile, New Mexico is fighting hard under Lujan Grisham to reduce dependency on oil and gas. Even as the governor’s announcement went out last week, hundreds of Albuquerque high schoolers joined in a worldwide walkout in protest of inaction on climate change. Among local organizers’ demands? That New Mexico issue a four-year moratorium on new fracking, in an industry that’s making free college realistic. With no O&G money rolling in, how will the state cover those tuition tabs?

So while it’s exciting, legislators need to spend plenty of time mapping out what-if scenarios. If they do this right, it could be a textbook model for the nation.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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