Governor signs bill to expand free tuition - Albuquerque Journal

Governor signs bill to expand free tuition

Two bond proposals to support Santa Fe Community College are on the Feb. 6 election ballot. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)
Santa Fe Community College, as seen in this file photo, and other institutions of higher education in New Mexico will be covered by an expanded scholarship program. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday signed into law her signature higher education priority from this year’s 30-day session, expanding a scholarship program that covers tuition and fees for adults seeking their first college degree.

She celebrated approval of the legislation, Senate Bill 140, during a ceremony at Western New Mexico University in Silver City.

The measure reached her desk after picking up bipartisan support in both chambers of the Legislature.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat up for reelection this year, has made it a priority throughout her first term to make college free for more New Mexicans.

She describes the Opportunity Scholarship Act – signed into law Friday – as the only state-funded program of its kind in the nation.

“This is a remarkable moment,” Lujan Grisham said.

In an interview, she said student loan debt is a tremendous barrier for students throughout the country even as a bachelor’s degree is required for so many careers. Higher education enrollment, she noted, has fallen over the last decade.

Too many “people can’t go to college anymore. They can’t afford it,” the governor said.

The expanded scholarship program covers tuition and fees at community colleges, universities or similar institutions for students seeking an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, or a certificate in certain occupations, such as welding.

It isn’t intended for graduate degrees or for people who already have a four-year degree.

Opponents of the proposal have questioned its cost and raised the prospect of unintended consequences, such as public colleges raising their tuition with the understanding that the state will cover the cost for students.

Legislative analysts estimate the program might cost about $115 million a year when fully ramped up.

But Lujan Grisham said it’ll be worth it and that her administration will be “tough” on any institution that attempts to game the system.

Recent high school graduates are already covered under New Mexico’s long-standing lottery scholarship.

The new law is designed to offer flexibility to a broader group of students. They can take as little as six credit hours in the fall and spring semester as they work toward an associate’s, a bachelor’s or a certificate.

The bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Liz Stefanics of Cerrillos and Rep. Joy Garratt of Albuquerque, both Democrats. It passed the Senate on a 30-6 vote and won House approval 51-17.

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