New Mexico has an ambitious free-college program. Will it last?

New Mexico is expanding its free college program, “Opportunity Scholarship,” by removing restrictions requiring students to be recent high school graduates and full-time students. The new program will also allow them to use grants for personal expenses. 

Cedar Attanasio/ AP
High school senior Cruz Davis-Martinez speaks with fellow students at the New Mexico School for the Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., March 10, 2022. Mr. Davis-Martinez could benefit from a free college program for state residents if he attends the University of New Mexico.

Even after failing a test that set her back a semester, Maribel Rodriguez will be heading back to nursing school next spring with a generous new state scholarship that abandons eligibility criteria to help more working adults get a college degree.

New Mexico is expanding its “Opportunity Scholarship,” which has already paid for Ms. Rodriguez’s tuition and allowed her to apply federal grants toward living expenses like gas and groceries. She’s reapplying to the nursing program and hopes to finish her degree without racking up debt that could hurt her husband and three children.

“I didn’t think a whole lot of opportunities were really out there for me at my age,” said Ms. Rodriguez of Lovington, New Mexico, who left college at 19 in part because she couldn’t afford rent. “Even though if we missed it whenever we were younger there’s still hope for us.”

Many states – including New Mexico – have for years offered free tuition programs for four-year degrees to residents, but the programs had restrictions, limiting participation to recent high school graduates and requiring that they attend school full-time.

Supporters of those restrictions say they incentivize students to finish their degree and narrow the number of students who participate, reducing costs. But critics argue they create too many hurdles for students to succeed, especially those who are low-income and struggling to work, pay rent, and raise a family.

New Mexico’s revamped program provides students with more flexibility, including attending college part-time and allowing them to use federal grants for personal expenses. There’s no requirement to finish in a set number of years.

“It opens the door for a lot of people, especially people who started a degree and had to leave for some reason,” said Kathy Levine, financial aid director at Northern New Mexico College in Española.

Still, Ms. Levine and other college counselors hesitate to promise students future funding.

Most of the $75 million expansion of the program relied on one-time federal pandemic relief and is authorized for only one year. If funding is cut, students could find themselves without support midway into their degree or certificate program.

As recently as 2017, New Mexico cut its other college scholarship program to just 60% of tuition because of an unexpected drop in state revenue. State officials now say that program, the Lottery Scholarship, is now solvent at 100% for at least the next four years.

New Mexico’s governor and Legislature hope the expanded Opportunity Scholarship program will be enough to reverse the state’s dismal education outcomes. Only Mississippi has a lower percentage of four-year-degree holders, at 23%, according to Census estimates.

Since 2020, the program has been used by 10,000 state residents pursuing associate’s degree programs, including nursing.

“It checks all those boxes, very robust, certainly stands out as a national model,” Jessica Thompson, vice president of the left-leaning think tank The Institute for College Access and Success, said of the revised program.

But Ms. Thompson warns that states are often ill-equipped to promise generous programs to students long-term because their revenues are so closely tied to the whims of the economy.

Ms. Thompson says other states like Oregon have authorized generous programs for undergrads, only to cut them when budgets were lean.

In 2020, Oregon had to cut its budget and tell 1,070 low-income students they wouldn’t be receiving the aid previously promised to them. This month, Oregon announced it’s doubling its cost-of-living grant for low-income students.

New Mexico officials had estimated that roughly 35,000 students could participate in the expanded program. But that number will likely shrink because universities across the state already have raised tuition, disappointing state higher education officials.

New Mexico Tech raised tuition by 9%, citing increased costs and the availability of the new scholarships. Others raised tuition by around 4%.

Starting in July, universities will have to negotiate with the state on tuition increase limits if they want to participate in the free tuition program. But the law didn’t prevent them from increasing tuition before that date.

At least for next year, the expanded program also will make existing support for recent high school graduates even more generous by allowing them to use federal funding for personal expenses, in addition to the existing “Lottery Scholarship” that pays their tuition.

That’s welcome news at an arts school in Santa Fe where students discussed their plans with a New Mexico State University recruiter on a lunch break.

“Some of our parents are still paying back their loans from college,” said junior Zoë McDonald, an aspiring cinematographer.

Painter Cruz Davis-Martinez knows he wants a four-year degree and is comparing the University of New Mexico and two schools in other states.

“A lot of my high school career, unfortunately, was spent taking dual credit,” Mr. Davis-Martinez said, “because I had that financial insecurity.”

At age 15, he started traveling 40 minutes so he could take advantage of free college classes paid for by his high school. The idea was to earn college credits so he could save money in college.

Now Mr. Davis-Martinez is realizing he can attend all the classes he needs without going into debt and without having to work so much that it cripples his academic performance.

Under New Mexico’s new plan, he’ll get more support than expected, though the exact cost of college is unclear. State officials are still writing the final rules for the program, including what fees will be covered and how much universities can raise tuition.

Ms. Thompson said it’s important for students to be able to pursue their education without the threat of debt hanging over them. Still, she thinks the state is one economic downturn away from cutting benefits and that the federal government needs to fund more of these programs.

“I’ll be surprised if New Mexico can sustain this without, you know, continued federal engagement and involvement in funding,” she said. “And I don’t think other states can follow them.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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