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Legislators would work out details of ‘free college’ plan

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Requiring colleges and universities to pump resources into student retention or setting a limit on future tuition increases are possible strategies state officials will consider as they try to make free college a reality in New Mexico.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last month surprised the top academic officials in the state when she announced plans to create the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, which would provide all New Mexicans, regardless of income, with tuition-free college.

The proposed scholarship would work alongside existing financial aid and scholarships, including the Lottery Scholarship, and cover whatever tuition and fees remain for a college-bound student. State higher education officials estimate they can achieve their goal at an annual cost of between $25 million and $35 million a year to help about 50,000 traditional students going to four-year colleges, as well as older adults attending community colleges.

The plan must be approved by the Legislature, which convenes in January for a 30-day session. And some of the details, it appears, will be worked out by lawmakers.

“This isn’t totally ready to roll out yet,” said Higher Education Secretary Kate O’Neill.

O’Neill told the Journal this week that state officials are aware of issues that need to be resolved, including long-term funding and eligibility for the program. Lujan Grisham has said she wants both traditional students who enroll in any public college or university within 16 months of graduating from a state high school or earn an equivalency, as well as adults who want to attend a two-year community college to be able to use the scholarship. Students would have to maintain a 2.5 GPA.

Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a libertarian-leaning research institute, has several questions.

“We’re concerned about the cost initially as well as down the road,” he said. “What restraints will be in place to ensure the institutes of higher learning don’t go on an empire-building spree with this new source of guaranteed money rolling into their coffers? These graduates … are they going to be taking jobs in New Mexico and paying taxes in New Mexico? We’ve seen all the states around us attracting large numbers of New Mexico students. Are we really spending all this money to train the future workforce in Texas, Arizona, etc.?”

Some of those questions won’t be answered until lawmakers convene, O’Neill said.

The announcement of the scholarship was a surprise to the top academics in the state. University of New Mexico Provost James Holloway and New Mexico State University Chancellor Dan Arvizu said they were aware state officials were planning an announcement aimed at improving access to higher education. But they said in recent interviews that they weren’t aware of the full extent of the governor’s idea until she announced it.

“From the governor’s point of view, she set the aspirations really high. I’m hedging a little bit. We don’t have all the details worked out, and we need to sharpen our pencils and say, ‘If not this, then that,’ ” O’Neill said. “Quite honestly, we’re still running scenarios to figure out … terms of cost.”

Another issue, O’Neill said, is the prospect of ill-prepared students enrolling in college because of the Opportunity Scholarship only to wash out. There could be a requirement that higher education institutions put additional resources into student retention programs to qualify for Opportunity Scholarship funding.

“We have to keep making sure we’re incentivizing retention and not just recruitment,” said Carmen Lopez-Wilson, deputy secretary of higher education.

Colleges and universities in New Mexico could also face requirements about tuition.

The Opportunity Scholarship would cover whatever tuition costs remained after a student received existing aid and scholarships. So what would stop UNM from raising its tuition and fees, especially if its prospective students and their families wouldn’t feel the pain of the increase because the state was picking up the tab?

“There’s an ecology to the situation. We’re going to ask for a limit of any tuition increases,” O’Neill said. “We’re aware of that issue, and it’s not like, ‘Here’s a blank check.’ ”

It’s not clear whether lawmakers will try to create a long-term funding source for the scholarship. The state could create a permanent fund and use the annual interest to fund the scholarships in years when oil and gas revenue is low.

State lawmakers will have an estimated $907 million in “new” money available in the coming budget year for spending on public schools, roads, health care and other programs, according to revenue estimates. The additional revenue is due largely to an oil boom in the southeastern part of the state.

“We’ve got to get people not only access to college but get them through college,” O’Neill said. “The state is going to step forward in terms of access. That’s the (Opportunity Scholarship) initiative. The need on the part of the colleges, then, is making sure all the wraparound services, all the retention services, are in there to make sure the students not only get into college but get through college.”

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