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Editorial: Free college plan will make the grade with a little more work

With less than a week left in the 2020 legislative session, it’s time for lawmakers to have a serious study session on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s free college plan.

This is an exciting and promising venture; it’s smart to invest some of those oil billions coming in from the Permian Basin in our residents’ educations – and thus our economy. But it is essential to set students up for success.

(An integral part is having more high school graduates ready for college; the K-12 system has a heavy lift ahead.)

The mirror Opportunity Scholarship bills are House Bill 14, by Rep. Tomás Salazar, D-Las Vegas, and Senate Bill 323, by Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque. They do a lot right, though as with any legislation – especially a new program – there’s fine tuning to be done.

Phase-in, age gap and too many credits

• Starting in August 2020, the bills cover the portion of tuition the current Lottery Success Scholarship doesn’t – around 40% – plus fees for young people who received their high school diploma, GED or honorable military discharge within 16 months. It will only work at two-year programs, and only on classes that count toward a certificate or degree. In August 2021, students will be able to transfer to/enroll in a four-year program.

While a phase-in makes sense from universities’ perspective – they need time to get ready — it’s leaving this year’s high school graduates who are ready for a four-year school out in the cold. Some of these students already have college credits and are ready to take courses not offered at two-year institutions. To remain eligible, they will have to spin their wheels for a year at community college on taxpayers’ dime.

The rationale was to target students who need the most help first – believed to be those seeking two-year certificates. That’s laudable, but it may backfire if some of our best and brightest go elsewhere because of this slight. Lawmakers should make the wording clear these students are covered when the program fully phases in.

• The bills allow adults age 24 and older who have no college degrees to get a professional certificate or associate’s degree. It’s an important part of skilling up the workforce and promises to get many who didn’t have the time, money or bandwidth for higher ed right out of high school to get an education and financial independence.

But what about those 19- to 23-year-olds who are now ready to improve their lives – and the lives of their families – by seeking a professional or two-year certificate? If there’s not enough time to address this odd window now, it should be revisited in the longer 2021 session.

• Universities have streamlined degree programs so students graduate without wasting time and money on unneeded courses. Now, a bachelor’s takes eight semesters and 120 credit hours. At UNM, full-time tuition covers up to 144 hours; extra hours cost additional tuition and fees. So why does this cover up to 180 credit hours?

Vague bottom line and lots of unknowns

The bills include the caveat “to the extent that money is available in the fund.” We’ve seen this movie before. The lottery scholarship used to cover 100% of tuition but now covers a flat amount currently closer to 60%.

The bills contain vague fiscal language and mention of a “memoranda of understanding” – supposed to give governors oversight of college budgets. The wording should be made more specific in next year’s session once the true cost is clearer. New Mexico did not live up to the promise of Free College 1.0 with its Lottery Success Scholarship. We need a better version 2.0.

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.

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