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Gov.’s revamped scholarship plan moves forward

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. (AP file)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – While some of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s legislative priorities have moved quickly through the Legislature, her proposed New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship has struggled to gain traction.

That could be changing, however, as a revamped proposal to cover tuition for an estimated 55,000 higher education students – by plugging the gap left by an existing lottery-funded scholarship – passed its first House committee Monday.

A similar bill has also been filed in the Senate, and the Democratic governor said Monday that her administration has listened to concerns about the initial bill and reworked it accordingly.

“This works for everyone,” Lujan Grisham told reporters about the revised proposal, before later adding: “This is universally fairer and more productive.”

Several university leaders from around New Mexico spoke in favor of the retooled bill during Monday’s meeting of the House Education Committee, which passed the measure 11-2.

Richard Bailey, president of Northern New Mexico College in Española, described higher education institutions as engines for the state’s economy.

“What this bill does is serve as a supercharger for that engine,” Bailey said.

Dan Arvizu, the chancellor of New Mexico State University, also spoke in support but warned that long-term funding to the scholarship program would have to be maintained.

“We do not want to be in a position where we make a commitment to a cohort of students, only to not be able to provide that funding in the future,” Arvizu said.

Under the revamped bill, the new scholarship program would be phased in over two years.

For the 2020-21 school year, the bill calls for $26 million to be spent on two-year scholarships for students attending community colleges, trade schools or four-year institutions that offer associate degrees. Recent high school graduates and adults ages 24 and older who head back to school would be among the students eligible for the tuition help.

For the following year, the scholarship could be expanded – at a higher price tag – to cover tuition costs of qualifying students at four-year universities.

Also, and unlike the initial version of the bill, the revamped proposal calls for opportunity scholarships to be awarded after the state lottery scholarship – which covers most tuition costs – but before other sources of financial aid, including federal Pell Grants.

That would allow lower-income students to use federal financial aid to cover student fees, textbooks and other expenses.

Marc Saavedra, executive director of the New Mexico Council of University Presidents, said the changes were made after repeated meetings between top Governor’s Office staffers and university leaders.

“They really did listen to a lot of things we brought to their attention,” Saavedra said, referring to the Lujan Grisham administration.

He also said delaying full implementation of the lottery scholarship program for another year would give four-year institutions more time to prepare.

Lujan Grisham unveiled the “tuition-free college” plan in September, touting it as a way to make higher education more accessible for New Mexicans and bolster the state’s long-term economy.

“If we build a diversified economy and provide every chance for New Mexicans to build a career and start a family here, they will stay,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement.

But the idea quickly ran into questions from legislators, some of whom questioned whether money to pay for the scholarship program would be better spent helping low-income students, rather than made more broadly available to state residents.

Skeptics have also questioned whether encouraging more New Mexicans to attend college could lead to a spike in unprepared students enrolling in universities statewide.

Even during Monday’s debate, some lawmakers suggested certain students might still be excluded under the revised plan, while other legislators said it might not go far enough.

“I still don’t see this as being all the way there,” said Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, who voted for the bill.

The two Opportunity Scholarship bills are House Bill 14, sponsored by Rep. Tomás Salazar, D-Las Vegas, and Senate Bill 323, sponsored by Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque.

Funding for the lottery scholarship program would have to be authorized in a $7.6 billion budget bill that passed the House and is pending in the Senate.

The 30-day session ends Feb. 20.

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