New Mexico Announces Plan for Free College for State Residents
Under the plan, tuition to all state colleges would be free for students regardless of family income.
- 18, 2019
ALBUQUERQUE — In one of the boldest state-led efforts to expand access to higher education, New Mexico is unveiling a plan on Wednesday to make tuition at its public colleges and universities free for all state residents, regardless of family income.
The move comes as many American families grapple with the rising cost of higher education and as discussions about free public college gain momentum in state legislatures and on the presidential debate stage. Nearly half of the states, including New York, Oregon and Tennessee, have guaranteed free two- or four-year public college to some students. But the New Mexico proposal goes further, promising four years of tuition even to students whose families can afford to pay the sticker price.
The program, which is expected to be formally announced by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday and still requires legislative approval, would apply to all 29 of the state’s two- and four-year public institutions. Long one of the poorest states in the country, New Mexico plans to use climbing revenues from oil production to pay for much of the costs.
Some education experts, presidential candidates and policymakers consider universal free college to be a squandering of scarce public dollars, which might be better spent offering more support to the neediest students.
But others say college costs have become too overwhelming and hail the many drives toward free tuition.
“I think we’re at a watershed moment,” said Caitlin Zaloom, a cultural anthropologist at New York University who has researched the impact of college costs on families. “It used to be that a high school degree could allow a young adult to enter into the middle class. We are no longer in that situation. We don’t ask people to pay for fifth grade and we also should not ask people to pay for sophomore year.”
By some measures, the tuition initiative will be the most ambitious in a growing national movement. College costs and student debt have emerged as major issues in the Democratic presidential primary, with two of the leading contenders for the nomination — Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — promising to make all public colleges and universities free. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has a more limited proposal to eliminate community college tuition.
So far, states, not the federal government, have led the way — sometimes out of a hope that a more educated work force would attract businesses and improve local economies. As of 2018, 17 states had programs promising free college to at least some students, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most of those programs cover tuition only at two-year institutions.
Cornell’s medical school is offering full rides to students who qualify for aid.
New York’s Excelsior Scholarship, championed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and enacted in 2017, illustrates some of the challenges New Mexico will face. Excelsior promises free tuition at public two- and four-year colleges to families making up to $125,000, but requires that students have no gaps in their education — meaning no time away from the lecture hall to work or to care for children or aging relatives. And the scholarship money cannot be used on books, housing costs, child care or any of the other living expenses that can quickly pile up, and eventually cause many to drop out of school.
“If you call it free and don’t provide the supports for students once they get there, then you still don’t set them up for success,” said Wesley Whistle, a senior adviser on higher education at New America, a Washington think tank.
He said he favored plans such as the 21st Century Scholarship Program in Indiana, which covers the cost of public college tuition for students from low-income families, allowing them to spend their federal Pell grant funds on nontuition expenses.
Like the New York program, the New Mexico plan would cover only tuition, not living expenses, and the funds would be available only after a student drew from existing state aid programs and from federal grants.
But the New Mexico proposal does go further than New York’s Excelsior Scholarship in two regards: It is available to all students, regardless of family income, and it includes funds for adults looking to return to school at community colleges.
“This program is an absolute game changer for New Mexico,” Governor Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “In the long run, we’ll see improved economic growth, improved outcomes for New Mexican workers and families and parents.”
Officials contend that New Mexico would benefit most from a universal approach to tuition assistance. The state’s median household income is $46,744, compared with a national median of $60,336. Most college students in the state also come from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds; almost 65 percent of New Mexico undergraduates are among the nation’s neediest students, according to the state’s higher education department.
The new program in New Mexico would be open to recent graduates of high schools or high school equivalency programs in the state, and students must maintain a 2.5 grade point average. In contrast to other states, like Georgia, that have curbed access to public colleges by unauthorized immigrants, New Mexico would open the tuition program to all residents, regardless of immigration status.
Carmen Lopez-Wilson, the deputy secretary of New Mexico’s Higher Education Department, said the program would benefit about 55,000 students a year at an annual cost of $25 million to $35 million. She added that the state was trying to bolster its higher education system, which endured spending cuts of more than 30 percent per student from 2008 to 2018.
“We’re giving money directly to students,” Ms. Lopez-Wilson said. “This is the best way to begin rebuilding the infrastructure of higher education in New Mexico.”
Ms. Lopez-Wilson said the relatively low cost of the program reflected low tuition costs in the state, with many students already receiving forms of assistance. Other states that have less extensive tuition assistance proposals are spending far more.
A year of tuition at the state’s flagship campus, the University of New Mexico, costs $7,556 for state residents. At the state’s largest community college, Central New Mexico Community College, tuition costs are generally less than $3,000 per year.
New Mexico already has some of the lowest debt rates for graduates of four-year colleges. In the class of 2017, they owed $21,237 on average, compared with a national average of $28,650, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.
The program will rely on approval and appropriations from the State Legislature if it is to commence as expected in 2020.
“This will take some high-quality politicking from the governor and others to make it happen,” said Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Governor Lujan Grisham, a Democrat.
But both chambers in New Mexico are controlled by Democrats, and while fiscal conservatives still have considerable sway in the state, legislators have already shown willingness recently to increase spending on public education. State and federal spending on early childhood programs, including prekindergarten, is climbing to $546 million this year in New Mexico, a $135 million increase from the previous year.
In a departure from the belt-tightening after the 2008 financial crisis, New Mexico also gave raises to public-school teachers and the faculty and staff of the University of New Mexico this year.
The free-tuition plan points to the shifting political landscape in New Mexico, traditionally a swing state that was up for grabs by both major parties. It is now emerging as a bastion of Democratic power in the West, standing in contrast to other large oil-producing states controlled by Republicans. At the same time, an oil boom in the Permian Basin shared by New Mexico and Texas is lifting the state’s revenues.
In some ways, the burst of interest in free public college is a return to the nation’s educational past. As recently as the 1970s, some public university systems remained largely tuition-free.
As a bigger and more diverse group of undergraduates entered college in recent decades, costs rose, and policymakers began to promote the idea of a degree as less of a public benefit than a private asset akin to a mortgage, according to Professor Zaloom, of N.Y.U. Many states raised tuition, and students became more reliant on grants and loans.
“We should be looking at the examples from our own history,” Professor Zaloom said. Free college educations from the University of California, the City University of New York and other public systems, she added, have been “some of the most successful engines of mobility in this country.”
Simon Romero reported from Albuquerque and Dana Goldstein from New York. Patrick J. Lyons contributed reporting from New York.
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