Greg Romero couldn’t believe the news when he heard that New Mexico would once again provide full tuition to eligible college students under the legislative lottery grant program.
“We were excited this year it looked like something closer to 85, maybe 90 percent of tuition with the lottery program,” Romero, the president of students associated with the University of New Mexico, said just hours after he learned the news on Thursday.
“So it was really cool to hear that he’s going to go up to 100 [percent],” he said. “It fulfills its purpose – to give students access to higher education for free.”
This will be the first time since 2015 that the state has offered free college tuition under the lottery grant program.
Total program funding will be $63.5 million for fiscal year 2022 — a 30 percent increase over last year’s funding of $43 million. Stephanie Montoya, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Higher Education, said the money will come from several sources.
Governor Michelle Logan Grisham has set aside $15.5 million in support of the grant, while $37 million will come from expected lottery ticket sales. The rest of the money from last year will be carried over.
“This is what is needed at the end of the pandemic,” Higher Education Minister Stephanie Rodriguez said in a phone interview.
She said that college access is “crucial to New Mexico’s economic prosperity, family sustainability, and self-efficacy. If we offer these opportunities to New Mexicans, we will see New Mexico and our families thrive in this economy in this post-pandemic environment.”
Rodriguez said she and other state leaders are discussing ways to keep the grant at the 100 percent mark beyond next year.
Legislators created the lottery grant program in 1996, and for nearly 20 years it has covered 100 percent of tuition for in-state students who have met eligibility requirements. But keeping up with scholarship demand has been a concern for years due to increased tuition rates, among other reasons.
Lawmakers began reducing the scholarship amount, first to cover 95 percent of tuition fees in 2014-2015, then 90 percent in 2015-16. Over time, that amount has decreased from 60 percent to 65 percent.
Of the 118,337 students attending the college in New Mexico, 24,256 receive scholarships from the lottery, according to the Department of Higher Education.
Financial aid officials at two of New Mexico’s leading colleges said they hope to enroll more students now that the scholarship program is back in full coverage.
“I hope this will be a turning point for students to realize that the cost of college is affordable and really an option,” said Vandeen McKenzie, director of financial aid services at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.
Full coverage also means students don’t have to rely on other financial aid programs to cover tuition fees, said Brian Malone, director of student financial aid at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He said they could use other money, which is not always associated with education expenses, to pay for housing, books, supplies and other fees.
He also believes that full tuition fees will encourage more students to attend public colleges. “Anytime you talk about covering tuition fully or deducting tuition that is already affordable, you are removing barriers to students attending college,” he said.
The lottery scholarship program wasn’t the only good news for college students. The New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, which benefits students who do not qualify for a lottery scholarship, such as returning adult learners and students attending college part-time, received an increase of $11 million for the next year.
Rodriguez said the state received $104 million in federal funds through the American Rescue Plan Act for Student Relief Grants.
Tomasinia Ortiz-Gallegos, associate vice president of student success at Santa Fe Community College, said financial support can make a big difference in giving high school graduates a chance to enter college.
“This financial responsibility can be detrimental to a student who is not even considering going to college,” she said.
A college degree, she said, gives these students “opportunities in the workforce. It gives them opportunities to further their education with a bachelor’s degree. It definitely makes them more marketable.”
“It helps our community.”