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New Mexico approves free college tuition for all residents; Utes included

At Western New Mexico University March 4, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which makes college tuition free for most New Mexicans and for Native American tribes contiguous to the state. (Courtesy New Mexico Department of Higher Education)
Bill includes eligibility for Ute Mountain Ute, Southern Ute and Navajo tribes; 29 colleges participate

New Mexico has passed historic legislation that offers free college tuition for state residents and bordering Native American tribes.

This month, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed Senate Bill 140 – the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship Act – making college tuition free for most New Mexicans and for tribes contiguous to the state.

“A fully funded Opportunity Scholarship opens the door for every New Mexican to reach higher, strengthening our economy, our families and our communities,” said Lujan Grisham in a news release. “Signing this legislation sends a clear message to New Mexicans that we believe in them and the contributions they will make for their families and the future of our great state.”

She signed the bill March 4 during a ceremony alongside students at Western New Mexico University in Silver City.

SB 140 took an existing free-tuition scholarship program for high school graduates and expanded it to any resident seeking higher education and job certification training, said Stephanie Montoya, public information officer for the New Mexico Higher Education Department, in an interview with The Journal.

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“It is the most wide-reaching, tuition-free scholarship program in the U.S.,” she said. “The benefits are huge for New Mexico families and our economy.”

The free college tuition program is available for recent high school graduates, returning adult learners, part-time students, career training certificates, associate and bachelor’s degrees, and summer courses.

To qualify, students must be a resident of the state for at least 12 consecutive months, enroll in at least six credit hours at a public college or university and continue to enroll each consecutive semester.

New Mexico officials pushed to expand the free tuition program to beyond high school graduates when they looked at the data and saw the majority of higher education students are over the age of 26 and did not qualify.

“Now you don’t have to be a recent graduate,” Montoya said.

The New Mexico free college tuition program also is available to Native American tribes contiguous to the state, which are included in the definition of “eligible resident,” Montoya said. Reservations that touch the border of New Mexico include the Ute Mountain Utes, Southern Utes and Navajo.

The New Mexico General Appropriations Act directs $75 million to the free-college tuition program in 2022, which could support up to 35,000 students beginning this fall, or over half of all undergraduate students in New Mexico. Of the funding, $63 million was provided by the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

In addition to covering full tuition and fees at in-state public colleges and universities, the free-tuition program lets students stack federal aid such as Pell grants, local scholarships and private scholarships to help pay for books, materials, housing, food, transportation, child care and other college costs.

Continued funding and support for the tuition program by the legislature year-to-year looks promising, Montoya said, and is seen as an investment in the state. In New Mexico, a quarter of residents don’t have education beyond high school.

“A more talented workforce will meet the emerging needs of our state,” Montoya said. “There is a lot of return on the investment.”

She said New Mexico has added 10,000 jobs in the past 10 years with an annual salary of $90,000, and almost all required training beyond high school.

Saving money on college tuition also increases disposal income for state residents and fuels the economy. Higher education creates a better employed workforce, which reduces pressure on public assistance programs.

Student and educator advocacy helped to push the bill over the finish line, Montoya said.

“There was an outpouring of relief and excitement from students and families when the bill passed,” she said. “Now they don’t have to worry how to pay for college next year.”

“With the Opportunity Scholarship Act, New Mexico has made history and set a national example of how states can break down barriers for students everywhere,” said Higher Education Department Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez in the news release. “This would not have been possible without the leadership of Gov. Lujan Grisham, the advocacy of New Mexico students who propelled this legislation forward by sharing their experiences, and the work of our many other partners at the state and national level who have helped us permanently change the game for every New Mexican who wants to pursue higher education.”

Senate Bill 140 was sponsored by Sen. Liz Stefanics and Rep. Joy Garratt, both Dempocrats.

“I am an adult learner who actually graduated from college by taking six credits per semester, so this bill is personally important to me,” said Garratt in the release. “Working together … we have laid a strong foundation in early childhood education, K-12 education, and now, higher education. I know it will change the lives of thousands of New Mexicans.”

There are 29 participating two-year and four-year colleges for the free-tuition program. There is no application required. If you are an eligible student enrolled in a New Mexico public college or university, the financial aid office at your choice of school will work to apply the scholarship.

More information is available at www.freecollegenm.org.

jmimiaga@the-journal.com