New Mexico on Wednesday announced an ambitious proposal to make tuition at its public colleges and universities free for all state residents, regardless of income.
If the proposal put forward by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wins legislative approval, it would apply to roughly 55,000 New Mexico students across the state's 29 public institutions starting next fall.
In-state high school students who have maintained at least a required 2.5-grade point average would be eligible for the proposed New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship program. Students would apply after enrolling in a state degree program. Students can also apply if they hold the equivalent of a high school diploma, or are returning adult learners.
New Mexico is not the first state to roll out a free tuition program for its residents, a growing trend as states take the lead on the rising cost of higher education. It's only the second state after New York to offer a full-tuition coverage plan for eligible residents. It's also the 21st state to provide full two-year coverage at community colleges.
However, New Mexico is the first to put together a full-tuition coverage plan without an income requirement, meaning even students who can afford to pay the full cost of college are eligible. By contrast, New York's Excelsior Scholarship only accepts applicants whose families make an annual income of $125,000 or less.
Critics question whether the state should cover college costs for wealthier New Mexicans. They also note the scholarship does not help defray the cost of living expenses, like housing or childcare, that can add up while students pursue advanced degrees.
But state officials contend the "last-dollar" program, which will cover the tuition and fees not already covered by other federal and state grants, will be most beneficial to students with the greatest need. Officials are also hoping the extra help regardless of income will encourage talented college-bound residents to stay in the state, one of the poorest in the nation, to help boost local economies that have yet to recover in the aftermath of the recession.
"In the short term, we'll see better enrollment, better student success," 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, a better trained and better compensated workforce."
New Mexico historically has kept tuition costs low — tuition at the University of New Mexico totals $7,556 this academic year for in-state residents, for instance. But the state will have to reach into its coffers, recently enriched by revenue from taxes on increased oil production in the Permian Basin, to cover the estimated $25 million to $35 million needed annually to fund the scholarship program.