Ds Scholarship

Lujan Grisham gets free college tuition bill | Legislature | New Mexico Legislative Session

The House of Representatives late Wednesday night approved a bill that hands a big win to New Mexico residents attending in-state colleges and universities: the possibility of free college tuition.

A call of the House by Republican Rep. Rod Montoya of Farmington, a procedural move that requires all 72 members to be present, delayed the vote for about half an hour as staffers rounded up lawmakers who weren’t in the chamber.

Close to midnight, the chamber voted 51-17 in favor of Senate Bill 140, which was previously approved by the Senate.

It is estimated to cost up to $75 million a year.

SB 140 also is a win for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who introduced the plan in 2019. She applauded the House vote, and indicated she intends to sign the bill into law.

That proposal, estimated at the time to cost $26 million, met with some resistance by administrators and legislators who thought college tuition might balloon as a result.

$17 million for the program in the 2020 regular session but made it available only to community college students. During a special session in June 2020, the amount was reduced to $5 million in the face of a revenue decline largely caused by the coronavirus pandemic. So far, the scholarship program has helped more than 15,000 students.

Unlike the Legislative Lottery Scholarship, offered to high school graduates who go directly to college, the Opportunity Scholarship would provide free tuition to other state residents, including adults returning to college and students who want to enroll part time.

“So many of our adults are juggling full-time jobs and child care and doing six credits per semester,” said Rep. Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque, who co-sponsored the bill. “It’s a challenge to do well.”

College can provide a pathway to a better life, including access to high-paying jobs, she said, adding education is a “powerful tool in breaking the cycle of poverty and raising up an individual, their family and even their community.”

But Wednesday night’s debate on the bill raised a question: Free college at what price?

Some lawmakers expressed concern the state might be committing to a new program without having funds to support it in the future.

“Any concern that we’ve made a commitment here that we don’t have funding for going forward?” asked Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs.

Garratt said the state Higher Education Department will monitor its progress and cost.

Rep. Candie Sweetser, D-Deming, told the chamber she believes the Legislature can find ways to keep the program rolling beyond fiscal year 2023, which begins July 1. That’s also the date the program would become effective.

“We’re making some commitments that may be challenging to the state of New Mexico,” Sweetser said. “I think we’re up to the challenge.”

Rep. T. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, said he likes the goal of the bill but said he wished there were an income cap eligibility provision included so it could target low-income students.

He said it gives him heartburn to think of residents who “are perfectly capable of paying for your own college because of your income or the assets you have and then you expect taxpayers to pay for that for you.”

The bill provides funds to cover all tuition and fees for degree-seeking undergraduate students attending any two- or four-year state or tribal college in New Mexico. Eligible students would have to take between six and 18 credit hours of courses during the fall and spring semesters. Those students also would have to maintain a 2.5 grade-point average.

Students enrolled in the scholarship program who drop out of a college program or skip a semester would lose access to the funding.

House Bill 2, the state budget bill, includes $63 million in nonrecurring funds to get the program going in July, according to the bill’s fiscal impact report. The scholarship program also would draw another $24.5 from existing college endowments.

About 20 states offer some sort of free college tuition program, though the vast majority offer it only to community college students.

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