NM set to expand free college program to most adults - Albuquerque Journal

NM set to expand free college program to most adults

The state Legislature, in the recently-concluded session, approved one-time funding of $75 million for a yearlong program intended to help residents return to college. (Liam Debonis/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – New Mexico is expected to expand one of the country’s most generous free college programs for nearly all adults.

Last week Democratic majorities in the Legislature approved one-time funding of $75 million for a yearlong program intended to help residents return to college if they couldn’t finish in the past, start even if they’ve been out of high school for a while, and have more help covering costs of school like fees and living expenses in addition to tuition.

If New Mexico can afford to keep paying for the program after the first year, people would be able to move to the state, establish residency, and get a free degree.

New Mexico’s Lottery Scholarships already offer free tuition to two and four-year colleges for residents who are also recent graduates of local high schools, but only if they can pay for their first semester and maintain at least a 2.5 GPA.

The new funding, stacked on top of state and federal subsidies, would cover that first semester for Lottery Scholarship recipients as well as expand the Opportunity Scholarship program, which began as a small pilot project during the pandemic to pay for more than just tuition.

Supporters of expanding the Opportunity Scholarship say it’s the most generous program in the country, with the widest eligibility.

It’s estimated to be able to fund up to 35,000 students to pursue two- and four-year degrees, as well as college certificates in high-demand areas like nursing, computer science and construction. Tuition and fees will be covered, even if they’re only studying part-time.

The Perks

Around 20 states in the U.S. cover the cost of college tuition, but that doesn’t make it free. Fees, books, housing and food usually add to what families have to pay to send their kids to college, or the debt they have to take out. New Mexico is the first to help pay for those other costs of college, and is also the first to fund certificate programs.

The program also funds living expenses for students with financial need, albeit indirectly, and only for U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

The Opportunity Scholarship grants kick in before federal awards, allowing them to flow directly to the students and further reduce college debt. With tuition and fees covered, federal awards of between $500 and $6,000 per year can go toward the cost of books, rent and food.

Eligibility

The law is intended to help residents who didn’t go to college right after high school, didn’t finish their degrees, or can’t access grants due to the typical requirement of attending full time.

While federal aid is restricted to U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, New Mexico’s college subsidy programs are open to all residents, including foreigners on temporary visas and those in the country without legal permission.

Pretty much any adult who has lived in the state for 12 months and wants to earn college credits will be eligible for the new program, as long as they don’t already have a bachelor’s degree.

Both major scholarship programs require students to maintain a 2.5 GPA, with some exceptions to make up classes or due to family or medical hardship.

Funding

Anyone thinking about moving to New Mexico for the college perks should know that the Legislature only approved funding for the program for one year, starting in July.

Even lawmakers who voted to support the scholarship have expressed concerns about its funding sustainability because $52 million comes from one-time federal pandemic relief.

If oil prices drop before the Legislature meets again in January or if the political winds shift following the midterm elections in November, the Opportunity Scholarship could be eliminated or scaled back.

Those who voted against the program pointed out that broad eligibility has made similar programs expensive and often unsustainable.

New Mexico’s Lottery Scholarship for local high school graduates offered free tuition between 1996 and 2016, but it’s been touch and go since then, with the state adjusting benefits each year based on state budgets that fluctuate with oil and gas prices.

The Lottery Scholarship is fully funded for the next four years, according to state higher education officials. For the Opportunity Scholarship, there’s no guarantee, though at least some of the funding is recurring.

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