New Mexico launches strong free college program, will other states follow?

With free college proposals stalled at the federal level, it seems increasingly unlikely that a federal free college program will pass before midterms. States are always working to introduce promising new programs to support students. With students and families grappling with the high price of a college education, finding ways to make a college education more affordable for students and families across the country is critical.

State-level promise programs are one way to lower the price of college education for students. Promise programs is a name for free college. Programs come in different forms. But basically, they promise students that their tuition and fees will be covered by grants. There are significant differences in how these programs can be designed, with the most important distinction being whether they are set up to be a first-dollar or last-dollar program.

Free first-dollar vs. last-dollar college programs

First Dollar Programs cover tuition and upfront costs, allowing students to use the Federal Pell Grant and any state grants they receive to pay for books, housing, transportation, and other expenses. Last dollar programs promise to supplement students’ financial aid if federal and state grants do not cover all of their tuition and fees. Last dollar programs are less expensive and therefore more common.

First-dollar programs provide more support for students from lower-income households. Students with the lowest personal and family incomes are most likely already receiving federal and state grants that would cover tuition and fees, leaving no room for a last-dollar pledge program to add to their financial aid.

More States Are Introducing Free University Programs

New Mexico is the latest state to introduce a free college plan and made the brave decision to make it a first-dollar program — meaning students can stack federal and state grants on top of tuition and free fees to help cover their basic needs. The governor’s office estimates the plan will support more than half of undergraduate students in New Mexico.

With more than twenty states now offer some form of pledge program and are more actively considering launching them, other states will look to see how effective and costly New Mexico’s program will be.

Will the New Mexico Free University Program provide an example for other first-dollar programs?

The New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship is one of the most generous and extensive promise programs in the country to date. The scholarship is open to high school seniors and older students entering higher education later. Additionally, the scholarship is available for both part-time and full-time students and can be used for professional training certificates, as well as associate and bachelor’s degree programs. Many free college programs limit eligibility to recent high school graduates and full-time students.

Dr Michelle Miller-Adams, an expert on free college programs, answering questions via direct message, said it was good to see the first dollar program as a model for other states, but it was less sure he would encourage others says to adopt similar approaches, noting that “New Mexico is unique in that its student population is small and there are already substantial resources devoted to scholarships, so the lift was not as heavy as it would be elsewhere”.

With university enrollment still downfree college programs are a way to communicate to students, especially students who might not think they can afford college, that going to college is financially possible. Recent research from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that when students think they and their families can afford to pay for college, they are more likely to enroll.

Partnerships with federal states would create stronger and more sustainable free university programs

State-led innovation in promising programs is a great first step in making college more affordable for students. Combining these first steps with a federal program would be much more powerful. States tend to cut higher education spending when revenues fall, making promising programs vulnerable to changes in state finances. Federal funds don’t dwindle in lean years and can help ease states’ economic hardship. Combined state and federal programs are likely to be more resilient and longer lasting.

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