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No such thing as free money

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The governor’s proposal to provide free college for all eligible New Mexicans may come with strings attached for higher education institutions, such as a limit to future tuition increases they would be able to approve.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

In preparation for the start of the 2020 legislative session next month, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has met with university presidents from around the state to discuss one of her major policy initiatives: the Opportunity Scholarship.

The proposed scholarship, which the governor announced earlier this year, would provide graduates of a New Mexico high school with an opportunity for free college tuition. The actual legislation hasn’t been drafted or introduced, so not all the details are known. But during her meetings with top education officials, the governor has disclosed some of the strings she plans to attach to her proposal.

For one: any college or university that accepts Opportunity Scholarship dollars would have to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding with the state Higher Education Department, a move aimed at creating additional oversight of how the institutions are spending state funding and if the students are having success at the institutions.

“If I have to be accountable to the taxpayers and the legislators … then I have to know what’s going on with your budgets and whether or not folks are succeeding,” Lujan Grisham said during a meeting with Journal reporters and editors last week. “If I can’t figure out what’s going on, where that money goes, then we can’t do that.”

The governor said she wants universities to enter into written agreements with the state to create that accountability before she funnels Opportunity Scholarship funding into the institutions. Officials predict the scholarship would cost the state up to $35 million a year.

“I don’t feel comfortable or confident going to the Legislature if I’m asking to give (New Mexico colleges and universities) another $35 million for students if I can’t really find out how it’s going to be used and what tuition rates are going to be next year,” she said.

Marc Saavedra

Marc Saavedra, the executive director of the Council of University Presidents, said Lujan Grisham met with college presidents and other higher education officials earlier this month. Based on those meetings, Saavedra said the MOU could set limits on how much each university could increase tuition, and also require that the universities invest into student-success initiatives.

One such plan, for example, was for the universities to pick three from 12 student-success initiatives – such as counseling services – and require that the universities spend a certain amount on those initiatives to qualify for the new scholarship, he said.

“Our position is that we need to make sure our budgets are funded adequately to accomplish these goals,” Saavedra said. “That’s a big part of (those requirements), that the higher ed budget needs to be funded at a sufficient level.”

The governor announced her plan to create the Opportunity Scholarship in September. Lujan Grisham called it her “moonshot for higher education” and said the scholarship would provide many of the state’s students with free college by covering whatever tuition costs are left after a student uses existing financial aid, grants and scholarships, including the Lottery Scholarship. The Opportunity Scholarship is expected to have similar qualifying criteria as the Lottery Scholarship in terms of course-load and grade-point average requirements, but it would also provide some free college plans for adults looking to go to school.

The governor said she’s confident that if the scholarship wins legislative approval, it could be enacted by the 2020-2021 school year.

An oil drilling boom in the southeastern part of the state is giving the state the money needed to launch the new scholarship program. New Mexico is expected to have nearly $800 million in “new” money, which is defined as the difference between projected incoming revenue and current state spending levels, according to state officials.

And higher education officials have said the free tuition proposal is cheaper than it would be in other states, because so many of the state’s students already receive the Lottery scholarship and use Pell Grants and other types of financial aid.

University presidents have said they remain excited about the rollout of the Opportunity Scholarship.

Joseph Shepard

Western New Mexico College President Joseph Shepard, the chairman of the Council of University Presidents, said that after meeting with the governor, the state’s university presidents remain in favor of the Opportunity Scholarship.

“We are all supportive of implementing some form (of a scholarship) where students would end up with free tuition,” he said. “The more individuals that can get educated the better. So removing barriers such as tuition is a positive thing from our point of view.”

University of New Mexico President Garnett Stokes declined to do an interview about the scholarship. But she said in a statement: “We had a very positive meeting with Governor Lujan Grisham. I’m looking forward to working with her administration, the Legislature and my colleagues in higher education to support New Mexico students in attaining a college degree.”

Shepard said an MOU limiting tuition increases for institutions that receive Opportunity Scholarship dollars is logical, as it would ensure regents at the universities, who set tuition rates, don’t significantly increase the rates knowing that students aren’t likely to feel much effect from the spike. He also pointed out that higher education institutions have had various benchmarks tied to their annual funding as part of the state’s funding formula, so such requirements wouldn’t be new.

He said he remains optimistic the colleges can achieve the mandates in the MOUs.

“I would imagine that if you are receiving the Opportunity Scholarship, there would be some limits set on tuition increases because otherwise, if you have the disconnect, universities could theoretically raise tuition and the state would be on the hook for that. Those sorts of things seem common sense to me,” he said. “The other pieces, what they might have in there in terms of outcomes and measurements, is yet to be determined.”


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