Since becoming president of New Mexico’s flagship university in 2018, I have met with families and employers across our state about how The University of New Mexico can best serve our diverse population. It’s clear New Mexicans want the education, opportunities and economic benefits UNM provides as the state’s only Research 1 university – but they also repeatedly identify the same obstacles to achieving their future.
For too long, college costs have kept countless students from pursuing an education – and, in fact, have driven many to doubt the overall value of a college degree. College is an investment – but it’s an investment in economic and social prosperity not only for students, but for our state and beyond. It is critical that income isn’t a roadblock to pursuing those dreams.
Traditionally, one of the best tools for overcoming barriers to access has been the Pell Grant, which has been helping low-income families cover college costs since the early 1970s. Pell Grants have made it possible for millions of students to acquire the education, skills and training necessary to help our economy thrive. In 2020-2021, more than 7,800 UNM students received nearly $33.5 million in Pell Grants.
That sounds like a lot, but when Pell Grants were created in 1972, they paid roughly 80% of a student’s college costs; today, its purchasing power has stagnated, covering barely 30%. This puts at risk an increasing number of low-income students, who are abandoning the possibility of a college education because of a lack of resources. During COVID, we saw low-income families disproportionately unplug from the admission process; nationwide, financial aid application renewals for families making less than $25,000 are down more than 7%.
Nationally, there is movement to raise the maximum amount of the Pell Grant, which currently sits around $6,500. UNM supports any increase in the grant, as it would allow more students to receive this vital assistance and help cover basic expenses beyond tuition – like housing, food, or childcare – that ensure our students can stay in school.
But we can, and should, do more. As the U.S. Senate deliberates changes to social infrastructure legislation, I am grateful to Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján for their leadership and advocacy for programs that provide much-needed assistance to underserved and underrepresented students – and to institutions that support them. They have called for an increased investment in Hispanic Serving Institutions, providing resources to update infrastructure like Wi-Fi and support systems for remote learning. In a geographically large state like ours, this helps us connect with some of our most distant populations.
And once students access our services, it’s critical they stay and complete their degrees. Legislation initiated by Heinrich, the College Completion Fund Act, would help do just that by investing in evidence-based strategies to help college students stay engaged in their education and attain their degrees. As we know from experience, college completion and degree attainment are vital to promoting upward mobility for New Mexico’s underserved populations, many of whom are first-generation college seekers.
These vital and long-overdue policy initiatives focus on removing barriers that deny access to higher education and inhibit the attainment of a college degree. Together, they represent more than an investment in a student’s education; they’re a down payment on their future – and ours.