When politicians unveil bold, sweeping ideas to the public for the first time, there’s a standard script.
First, we get the pomp. Then, we get the circumstances.
It’s no different with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s plan to offer free college for many qualified New Mexicans. Her Opportunity Scholarship plan made national waves when its bare bones were announced in September: The governor was asking lawmakers to cover the balance of tuition left after other aid including the Lottery Scholarship, plus fees, for qualified recent high school graduates at a state school, as well as for some New Mexico adults.
Then, in a Dec. 22 story by Journal reporter Ryan Boetel, we got the details behind that splashy announcement: The governor is hoping to use the Opportunity Scholarship to give her office a greater hand in important university affairs, including limiting tuition hikes and requiring universities to commit to student-success initiatives.
It’s an ask that makes lots of sense from the governor’s perspective – you don’t hand over an estimated $25 million to $35 million annually without a few strings. However, ceding that much influence and control to the Governor’s Office won’t come easy, and in the long term, the details hashed out between the governor and university leaders will matter enormously.
A little history lesson is in order here, because New Mexicans have seen this whole free-college thing before.
Back in the 1990s, the New Mexico Lottery was created based largely on its promise to use proceeds to fund a scholarship covering 100% of tuition for qualified graduates of New Mexico high schools.
It now covers around 60% – over the years the money hasn’t stretched to cover all tuition for all applicants because there have been economic downturns that eat up disposable gambling incomes, a whopping total of 29 institutions offering the scholarship, regular tuition increases (an easy rationalization for regents and administrators when gamblers, not students, are picking up a lot of the tabs – lawmakers recently decoupled the scholarship from tuition and made it a flat dollar amount to combat this) and more options for gamblers’ dollars, including the recent addition of sports betting.
In addition, there is an almost annual fight in the Legislature to raid other revenue streams to keep the scholarship afloat while keeping the lottery contributing 30% of its revenues. Lottery officials claim if they can plow more money into prizes they will get more gamblers, and a smaller percentage of a bigger number would mean more toward scholarships. So far lawmakers have been unwilling to take that bet.
Meanwhile, the New Mexico Lottery website announces there have been 122,652 scholarship recipients since 1996, but it also says there have been just 71,814 graduates. So what happened to the other 50,838 scholarship students? Are they still working their way through their degree programs? Did they leave school early because they got great jobs? Failed to pass the required 12 hours a semester at a community college/15 hours a semester at a university? Were unable to maintain a 2.5 GPA? Didn’t have the finances to cover the close to half of tuition left after the award, plus all the fees, books and living expenses?
The point is, you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken, and almost a quarter of a century in, there’s a lot about the current program we don’t know.
But there have been valuable lessons along the way, including that creating a scholarship fund doesn’t automatically create college-ready students. While the number of high school graduates needing remedial coursework decreased under the Gov. Susana Martinez administration, it’s still around a third – and needing remedial coursework sharply decreases a student’s chances of graduating.
And despite Martinez’s initiatives that aligned degree programs to 120 credit hours and made the final semester free for students who finish in four years or less, at some point the state is going to have to get real about having so many colleges and universities (32) with their own governing boards that deliver such poor completion rates (in 2018 our flagship university, the University of New Mexico, had a 32% four-year graduation rate).
More – or less – control?
There could very well be some squeamishness on the part of the institutions as they open the door to even greater Governor’s Office control. And it’s worth noting the governor already has a direct line of influence in the form of regent appointments, and this governor got more than her share thanks to a Senate Rules Committee that ignored the state Constitution and kept confirmations on ice.
But why should taxpayers commit to footing the tuition bill if no limits exist on tuition hikes? Doesn’t it make sense to ask universities to do what they can to provide some targeted programs to help struggling incoming freshmen adjust and succeed? And shouldn’t the public have access to detailed, up-to-date data on how Opportunity Scholarship recipients are performing?
New Mexico took a gamble on free college before and watched the payout shrink while the payoff has yet to be quantified. The administration and the universities need to build on lessons learned this time around so it’s a surer bet for our students and our taxpayers.
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.