‘Free’ tuition program should boost WNMU

Written by on September 21, 2019

New Mexico students who are getting ready for college may be able to attend tuition-free, under a new program announced by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham earlier this week. As for institutions of higher learning in the state — including Western New Mexico University — administrators expect the program to increase enrollment across the board.

The new program is called the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, according to a press release sent out by the Governor’s Office on Wednesday. The program would effectively cover any tuition and fees not paid for by federal grants or the New Mexico Lottery Scholarship.

“In-state residents of New Mexico with a high school diploma or high school equivalency will be eligible with a maintained minimum GPA,” according to the press release, and “students will be able to apply for and access the scholarship after enrolling in a public, post-secondary institution.”

Lt. Gov. Howie Morales told the Daily Press that a long-term problem in New Mexico has been keeping New Mexican students in New Mexico.

“This gives an opportunity for our students to stay in the state, remain here, get trained here, and then have employment within our state,” he said.

Morales said the Opportunity Scholarship will give more students the opportunity to attend college.

“It definitely is going to be a benefit for not only Western [New Mexico University], but all universities, including community colleges across the state,” he said.

According to documents provided by Morales, the program is estimated to cost the state $25 million to $35 million, and will be funded by legislative appropriations. The program will “provide” a total of 54,925 students across all colleges — with 698 predicted for WNMU.

WNMU President Joseph Shepard said that the new program should bring more students to the university because those students will no longer bear a financial burden.

“It will allow us to enhance our educational opportunities for more people,” Shepard said.

According to the press release, not only will recent high school graduates benefit from the program, but so will adult learners. Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Jack Crocker said that WNMU, in particular, may benefit from that provision.

“One of the elements of the plan … besides the traditional students coming out of the schools, is that it will be available for adult students as well,” he said. “I am sure there are a lot of people living in our area and our region and in Grant County who have some college credits. They may have started out of high school, dropped out and haven’t come back.

“This could really open up a pathway for those students who can return,” Crocker continued. “That could certainly affect Western, because that population of students would be students who already live here and wouldn’t be going to other institutions.”

The Opportunity Scholarship may also help alleviate the burden of paying off student debt.

“Whatever the final structure turns out to be, and whatever funding that is available, I think one of the goals could be to reduce student debt,” Crocker said. “That is a huge burden that continues to be a challenge for students as they move into the job market.”

With the announcement, New Mexico becomes only the second state to offer full tuition coverage to state residents. New York state offers a similar program to its residents.

“We are pivoting to a robust reinvestment in higher learning — specifically and directly in our students,” Lujan Grisham said in the release. “By covering the last dollar of tuition and fees, by making college significantly more accessible to New Mexicans of every income, of every background, of every age, we are putting students first.”

District 38 state Rep. Rebecca Dow expressed reservations about the new program, questioning its long-term sustainability. She said that while she supports scholarships, they should be targeted and “intentional.”

“It shouldn’t just be about free college,” she said. “It should be about growing a qualified workforce in New Mexico. So for me, I would like to see vocational career certifications and scholarships available in high-demand jobs, jobs that we need in New Mexico. [There’s a] teacher shortage, shortage of social workers. We have a shortage of health care professionals. And target those scholarships to folks who are going to work in New Mexico.”