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NM students urged to seek federal aid

New Mexico education officials want to encourage more high school students to apply for federal financial aid to help pay for college.

The initiative was announced last week, a day after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham proposed a scholarship program to bridge the gap between federal aid and state lottery-funded scholarships so more people can afford college.

If more students are awarded federal aid, that would reduce what the state would have to pick up through the proposed scholarship program.

Officials want to increase the annual statewide rate for federal financial aid applications to 80%. Currently, about 65% of New Mexico high school students apply.

Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said filling out the application is a student’s key to accessing grants, scholarships, work-study programs and federal student loans. Right now, more than one-third of New Mexico students are missing out on potential federal funds that would make college more affordable, he said.

By increasing the application rate, New Mexico would be “seeding the soil that will produce thousands more doctors, computer scientists, authors, architects, nurses, artists and teachers across our state,” he said.

“For thousands of students, we will make possible a college experience that breaks a generational cycle of poverty,” Stewart said in a statement.

New Mexico has been struggling for years to address the cost of higher education.

It took a leap forward during the 1990s with the creation of the lottery scholarship, which for nearly two decades covered 100% of tuition at state institutions, erasing most of the costs eligible students had to pay.

Demand for the scholarship almost doubled to more than 17,000 students from the spring semester of 2000 to the spring of 2010. Now, about 26,000 students use the award to defray costs.

Between 1996 and 2018, $740 million in lottery proceeds and other state funding was funneled to the program, benefiting a total of nearly 117,000 recipients.

Legislative analysts report about 56% of students graduated.

State lawmakers in recent years were forced to lower the amount the scholarship covered and tighten eligibility requirements as demand for financial aid and tuition hikes outpaced revenue generated by lottery ticket sales.

New Mexico State University and other schools began aggressive campaigns to ensure students had access to bridge scholarships.

Lujan Grisham’s proposed “opportunity scholarship” marks a statewide extension of those efforts to fill the gap in financial aid.

The Legislature would have to approve the use of general fund dollars to cover the scholarships.

While New Mexico is flush with cash now due to an oil production boom, some economists cautioned that state spending on education and other government programs is increasingly vulnerable to possible downturns in the oil and gas sectors.

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