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Editorial: Covering full tuition via lotto scholarships an A+ NM investment

Finally, some good news – really good news our college students and their families can bank on.

State officials announced last week that after years of failing to live up to its promise, New Mexico’s Legislative Lottery Scholarship program will once again cover full tuition for eligible in-state students in the next academic year.

“This is what is needed at the tail end of a pandemic,” says Higher Education Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez.

And how.

While it’s shy of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s vision of free college, it’s an important step in that direction. Established in 1996, the lottery scholarship paid full tuition for eligible students from 1996 to 2015, leveling the playing field for tens of thousands of students every year. The scholarship was reduced to levels as low as 60% in 2017 due to rising tuition rates, lagging lottery sales and a lack of state funding. It covered only 66.7% of tuition at UNM this school year. And it doesn’t fund other college expenses like room and board, textbooks and labs, and student fees. (As a bridge to the governor’s free-college promise, the new Opportunity Scholarship covers tuition and fees at two-year institutions, and UNM’s Lobo First-Year Promise covers base tuition and fees for freshmen with annual family incomes under $50K.)

Full funding was exactly what student government leaders from the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and New Mexico Tech urged in February in an op-ed published in the Journal. “It’s not just important for the student themselves, it is important for their families, their communities, their siblings – it affects all of us,” UNM student Dulce Saldivar wrote in the op-ed.

The lottery scholarship will be fully funded at $63.5 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year, a 30% increase, with the additional money from several sources, including $15.5 million appropriated by state lawmakers earlier this year, $37 million from projected lottery ticket sales, and money carried over from last year. By law, at least 30% of lottery revenues must go to scholarships, but that’s not been enough in recent years to fulfill the promise of 100% tuition.

Rodriguez says officials are exploring ways to keep the scholarship at 100% funding beyond next year. That’s critical. Students and their families need assurances they’ll be able to cover tuition costs in subsequent years so the scholarship results not just in college/university enrollment, but college/university degrees. As Raven Otero-Symphony, a first-generation student at UNM, said in the Feb. 14 op-ed, the lottery scholarship was key to going to college and “higher education is going to be (my) survival in the long-run that will break the cycle of generational poverty.”

UNM student body president Mia Amin, NMSU student body president Mathew Madrid and New Mexico Tech student body president Quincy Bradfield wrote in the op-ed that many students at four-year, state-funded institutions would have to make hard choices about continuing their education without full tuition funding. “As a state, we need to be prepared to staff companies like Amazon, Facebook, and the Theia Group Satellite Company as they set up for business in the Land of Enchantment.”

They’re right.

The lottery scholarship is a great equalizer that brings higher education within the reach of many who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend college. Full funding of tuition costs at our four-year institutions is a wise investment for the state that will pay dividends for decades to come, increasing the number of degrees in the region and ultimately better employing new graduates in New Mexico.

Full funding for tuition was a promise made more than a decade ago. The governor and lawmakers made good on it for next school year and should ensure it’s a promise kept.

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.