When Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the New Mexico Higher Education Department introduced the Opportunity Scholarship last year, we knew it was an important resource for closing the access gap for students seeking higher education. What we didn’t know is that one year later, the program would prove to be more critical than ever for helping New Mexicans get back on their feet and reinvigorating our economy following the worst public health crisis our state has ever faced.
That is why this legislative session, we are once again putting New Mexico students first by recommending $22 million in funding to support up to 30,000 students across the state in attaining a two-year degree or certificate. In order to accommodate students who work or have other time commitments, we are seeking to reduce the minimum credit hour eligibility requirement from 12 credit hours to six, and establishing a fund to ensure that students have access to the Opportunity Scholarship for years to come. Additionally, we are dedicating $4 million to help students who lost eligibility for the Lottery Scholarship and are close to completing their bachelor’s degree program.
We estimate that these graduates would bring a return on investment of $150 million in the form of income tax revenues, GRT revenue, and savings to public assistance programs, not to mention the value of supporting families and becoming future job creators and innovators themselves.
As the only one of my siblings to graduate from college, I know firsthand the challenges many New Mexicans face in gaining access to higher education and navigating college once they are there. We are committed to removing barriers, and know that many of our citizens take different paths to higher education. Some start their educational journey later in life, or experience interruptions due to hardships. We also know that pursuing a degree involves costs beyond tuition and fees, such as transportation, housing, books and materials, childcare and technology.
Many financial aid programs do not take these students or costs into account, but the Opportunity Scholarship does. Any New Mexican enrolling in a two-year degree program at any public or tribal college or university in our state can have up to the full cost of tuition and fees covered, leaving them the option to apply other financial aid they receive, such as federal Pell grants, to other expenses that often stand in the way of attaining a degree. Furthermore, students are eligible whether they completed high school or their high school equivalency credential three months or 30 years ago.
The idea of pursuing a college degree can be daunting, but the rewards of doing so are life-changing and multigenerational for the families impacted. Zooming out with a statewide lens, we know that the students of today are preparing for and even creating the jobs of tomorrow, and that postsecondary education is necessary in a 21st century economy. If we want to reduce disparities for New Mexicans, we only have to look to the education and training programs available in our own backyard.
For example, let’s look at the technical trades programs offered at many of our state’s colleges, universities and branch campuses. New Mexico Workforce Connection has forecast more than an 11% growth in industry positions in the next few years in New Mexico alone, with over 6,600 jobs directly related to these trades. With a two-year degree, graduates can immediately enter jobs where they will experience lower unemployment rates and higher salaries, or they can opt to continue their education to unlock even greater lifetime earning and career potential.
The pandemic has led us to evaluate our present and reconsider our future. How can New Mexico and New Mexicans access jobs that will help us meet the challenges and opportunities of the future? How can we best serve our citizens and empower them to create a better future for all of us?
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has worked hand-in-hand with legislators and state agencies to lay a strong foundation for early childhood and maintain consistent funding in public education. Expanding opportunities in higher education to improve outcomes for New Mexicans from cradle to career is the next logical step. New Mexico was the first state in the nation to offer tuition-free college through the New Mexico Lottery Scholarship, and we must restore that promise to New Mexicans. This is our opportunity to transform educational access, improve lives and restart New Mexico on the path to prosperity.