NM set to expand free college program to most adults

The state legislature in its recently adjourned session approved $75 million in one-time funding for a one-year program to help residents return to college. (Liam Debonis/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — New Mexico is set to expand one of the nation’s most generous free college programs for nearly all adults.

Last week, Democratic majorities in the Legislature approved $75 million in one-time funding for a one-year program to help residents return to college if they were unable to finish in the past, starting even though they were out of high school for a while. , and have more help to cover school fees like tuition and living expenses in addition to tuition.

If New Mexico can afford to continue paying for the program after the first year, people could move to the state, establish residency, and earn a free degree.

New Mexico Lottery Scholarships already offer free two- and four-year college tuition for residents who are also recent local high school graduates, but only if they can afford their first semester and maintain at least a 2.5 GPA.

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

Proponents of the Opportunity Scholarship expansion say it is the most generous program in the country, with the widest eligibility.

It is estimated to be able to fund up to 35,000 students to pursue two- and four-year degrees, as well as university certificates in high-demand fields like nursing, IT and construction. Tuition and fees will be covered, even if they are only studying part-time.

Benefits

About 20 US states cover tuition, but that doesn’t make it free. Fees, books, housing and food usually add up to what families have to pay to send their children to college, or to the debt they have to incur. New Mexico is the first to help pay for these other college costs, 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.

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

Eligibility

The law is intended to help residents who did not go to college right after high school, who did not graduate, or who cannot access scholarships due to the typical requirement to attend full-time.

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

Virtually any adult who has lived in the state for 12 months and wants college credit will be eligible for the new program, provided they don’t already have a bachelor’s degree.

Both major scholarship programs require students to maintain a 2.5 GPA, with some exceptions for making up class or due to family or medical difficulties.

Funding

Anyone considering moving to New Mexico for college benefits should know that the legislature only approved funding for the program for one year, beginning in July.

Even lawmakers who voted in favor of the scholarship have expressed concerns about the sustainability of its funding, as $52 million comes from one-time federal pandemic relief.

If oil prices fall before the Legislature reconvenes in January or if the political winds change after the midterm elections in November, the Opportunity Scholarship could be terminated or reduced.

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

The New Mexico Lottery Scholarship for local high school graduates offered free tuition between 1996 and 2016, but since then the state has adjusted the 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 are no guarantees, although at least some of the funding is recurring.

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