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Free tuition sends some students back to school

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signs Senate Bill 140 into law at Western New Mexico University
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signs Senate Bill 140 into law at Western New Mexico University

Fyqa Hilmi meets me in the cafeteria of Santa Fe Community College, which has a sweeping view of snowy mountains and blue skies. But life here isn’t always easy for the 23-year-old, who is studying for an associate’s degree in business.

“I always worked two jobs,” she said, and she stopped school for two years when money at home was tight during the pandemic.

Now, with new legislation coming into effect this year, she thinks her tuition will be paid for by an expanded Opportunity Scholarship, expected to cover up to 35,000 New Mexico residents.

And it’s not just Hilmi. She works in the financial aid department of the community college and says there’s a lot of excitement about the new opportunity. "We got a lot of calls," when the legislation was passed by the state legislature, she said.

People are, "asking whether they can come back to school, and then pursue their dreams. And that makes me happy."

When Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed Senate Bill 140 into law earlier this month, officially making tuition at colleges and universities free for most New Mexicans, the mariachi band of Western New Mexico University erupted into a celebratory fanfare.

"This really is a huge deal," said Emily Wildau, a research and policy analyst with New Mexico Voices for Children. "[It's] the first time that a program is open to any resident to go back who doesn't have a degree. They can pursue a certificate that's in a high demand career area, they can pursue an associate's or bachelor's degree."

And, she added, the scholarship is available for people who study part-time, "which is really important in this day and age when many students are working or have families of their own." She said over half of students in New Mexico are over 25, and more than a quarter have children.The initiative is part of a broader push to improve educational outcomes statewide, including teacher pay raises.

The governor said in a statement that it would help, "our state build capacity in high-need fields like teaching, medicine and the trades." New Mexico has a shortage of some professionals including nurses and teachers.

And the state is not alone in attempting to reduce the cost of higher education.

"There's been a push at the state level for what are named either free college programs or Promise programs, promising that if you meet certain criteria, the cost at least of tuition and fees at mostly public institutions will be covered," said Eddy Conroy, a senior policy advisor for higher education with the New America Foundation. He's advocated for free tuition.

"We're up to about 20 states that have some form of state level program," he said.But in terms of the scope of the legislation, "New Mexico's program is one of the most generous if not the most generous Promise program that we've seen instituted so far," he said.

Partly, that's because the initiative is what's known as a "first dollar" program - the scholarship pays for tuition and fees before any other financial aid is applied. So students can use other grants to pay other expenses.

However, there are some limits. One big one is that the law is financed only for one year, and most of the $75 million cost is drawn from pandemic relief funding.

"If we were going to do this, we probably should have committed at least a few years of resources to it, to see how efficient the program was and whether it was going to be effective," said state representative Larry R. Scott, a Republican representing Lea County in southeast New Mexico.

The expectation is that the scholarship will be renewed next year, and that with an oil and gas boom, finding the money should be possible. But Scott pointed out fossil fuel busts happen, too.

"We've gone from being flush with money to not having enough to fund K12 education," he said. In 2017 the state used $46 million from public schools' cash reserves to fill a budget gap.

Wildau with New Mexico Voices for Children says publicly funded tuition pays dividends long term, "because as it trains more and more people, that's an investment in our economy...So we have a better educated workforce, and that will help us attract new industries and create better paying jobs.”

If oil and gas do end up funding free tuition longer term in New Mexico, Wildau hopes the result will be a workforce that’s less dependent on a single industry for prosperity.

The state's former Secretary of Education, Veronica C. Garcia, said there are other economic advantages to improving education.

"An educated workforce is going to have a positive impact on our economy and quality of life," she said. "We also know that the more education people have, they tend to have longevity and better health. And so all of this can result in savings. So it's worthwhile."

And even a year’s free tuition means a lot to someone like Itzayana Banda, who had to drop out of Central New Mexico Community College a few years ago, even after a favorite teacher encouraged her.

"It got to the point where I was like, 'No, I need to stop,'" she said. "It's either like, I have money for rent, for gas, for other things, or it's I finish my education."

Banda now works for the NM Dream Team group of activists, advocating for education equity among other things. But she hopes to head back to college in the fall. She was especially relieved to hear that there is no requirement to have legal immigration status - which she does not have - for the new scholarship.

"It just painted a smile on my face," she said. "Just to know, there's going to be no more kids struggling the way I did or holding their education back because they feel like they don't have that opportunity."

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