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Legislators question new scholarship plan


Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, left, and Rep. Javier Martinez, D- Albuquerque, listen Monday to analysts with the Legislative Finance Committee talk about financial aid for college student in New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers greeted one of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s signature initiatives – tuition-free college – with a heavy dose of skepticism Monday as they prepared to open the 2020 session.

In a committee hearing, legislators from both parties expressed doubt about whether the governor’s proposal for a new scholarship program is the right answer to helping more students New Mexico’s colleges and universities.

They also examined a new report by legislative analysts that questioned the administration’s $35 million-a-year cost estimate and whether the money would be better spent helping low-income students, rather than made more broadly available to state residents.

Lawmakers on the Legislative Finance Committee, nevertheless, said Monday that they like the concept and share the goal of making college more affordable.

“If we do this, we need to get it right,” said Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants.

Higher Education Secretary Kate O’Neill told lawmakers the proposal is realistic and would be a strong complement to existing programs, such as the lottery scholarship.

To increase the impact, she said, the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, as it’s called, would be offered as a “last-dollar” program, covering the cost of tuition and fees after a student’s other financial aid is factored in.

“We’re looking at building on what we’ve got and making this affordable,” O’Neill said.

College costs

In a report presented Monday, analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee raised a variety of concerns about the proposed scholarship.

Research, the analysts said, indicates that the full cost of attendance – not just tuition – is a real barrier for low- and middle-income students who want to pursue a degree. Tuition is one factor, the analysts said, but students must also contend with the cost of books, transportation, food and housing.

They suggested that “first-dollar” approaches that provide a certain amount of aid to qualified students – regardless of any other scholarships they receive – are a better strategy for making college affordable for students whose families can’t otherwise afford it.

“Tuition and fees are not the full story,” said Clayton Lobaugh, a program evaluator for the Legislative Finance Committee.

The LFC report also bluntly outlined the challenges facing higher education in New Mexico. The state’s high schools have succeeded in turning out more graduates, but college enrollment has fallen 14% over the last five years, according to the report.

Enrollment, meanwhile, is increasing in Utah and Arizona.

“Our surrounding states may be getting our graduates,” said Mark Valenzuela, a principal analyst for the LFC.

Legislative analysts also said the governor’s tuition-free proposal might cost as much as $49 million a year, rather than the $35 million her administration estimated. The actual cost would depend on enrollment growth and other factors.

A budget recommendation released by the governor includes the $35 million figure, while the LFC’s budget plan would appropriate a similar dollar amount but use the funding for traditional financial aid programs, including for low-income students.

‘Still a lot to cook here’

Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, said he worries that the last-dollar approach favored by the administration would discourage students from seeking other financial aid. Why bother seeking extra financial aid, he asked, if it’s just going to be deducted from your state scholarship?

“It’s essentially throwing away free money,” Harper said.

Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, said the opportunity scholarship might disproportionately help high-income families, although he likes the concept of increasing financial aid for students.

“There’s still a lot to cook here,” he said.

Other lawmakers asked whether the proposal might encourage students to seek out higher-cost institutions rather than local community colleges.

“We’re going to see a distortion of enrollment,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat entering her second session as governor, has pitched the Opportunity Scholarship as a powerful, cost-effective way to help students pursue a degree or career.

It would, she said, fulfill the original promise of the lottery scholarship – a program that once paid full tuition at public universities but now covers just 60% to 75%.

The opportunity scholarship would be aimed at recent high school graduates and adults who want to return to college.

The state’s public colleges and universities enter into agreements with the Higher Education Department, imposing requirements for services to improve student success and retention.

“We look forward to investing in New Mexico students,” said O’Neill, the higher education secretary.

The proposal would boost economic diversification, she said, among other benefits. In addition to academic degrees, the opportunity scholarship would support certain certificates, such as for welding.

A 30-day session of the Legislature starts Tuesday and runs through Feb. 20.

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