Congratulations to the free college developed by New Mexico, but some are wary

High school senior Cruz Davis-Martinez speaks to fellow students at the Santa Feil New Mexico School for the Arts in March. If Davis Martinez joins the University of New Mexico, residents of the state will benefit from the $ 85 million college free program. The program was funded with a one-time federal grant, and supporters are concerned about how much the state can sustain. (AP Photo / Cedar Atanasio)

SANTA FE – Maribel Rodriguez will return to nursing school this fall with a generous new state scholarship to drop the eligibility criteria to help more working adults graduate from college, even after failing a semester lagging exam.

New Mexico is expanding its “Opportunity Scholarship,” which allowed her to apply for federal grants for living expenses such as Rodriguez’s tuition, gas and groceries. She is re-applying to the nursing program and hopes to complete her degree without incurring any debt that could hurt her husband and three children.

“I did not think I had many opportunities at my age,” said Rodriguez, 37, of Lovington, who left college at the age of 19 because she could not afford rent. “It was lost when we were young, but we still have hope.”

Many states, including New Mexico, have for years offered free tuition programs to residents for four-year degrees, but the program has restrictions, limiting participation to recent high school graduates and allowing them to attend school full time.

Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online. But critics argue that they create too many barriers for students to succeed, especially those on lower incomes who find it difficult to work, rent and support a family.

New Mexico’s updated program gives students more flexibility, including allowing them to enroll in part-time college and use federal grants for personal expenses. It does not need to be completed within a certain year.

“It opens the door for a lot of people, especially people who have just graduated and had to go for some reason,” said Cathy Levine, financial aid director at Northern New Mexico College in Espanola.

Still, Levine and other college counselors are reluctant to offer future funding to students.

Much of the $ 75 million expansion of the program relies on one-time federal pandemic relief, and is only allowed for one year. If funding is low, students can find themselves without support for their degree or certificate program.

In 2017, New Mexico cut its other college scholarship program to 60% of tuition due to an unexpected drop in state revenue. State officials say the Lottery Scholarship program will be 100% solvent for at least the next four years.

The governor and legislature of New Mexico hope that the expanded “Opportunity Scholarship” will be enough to change the state’s poor educational outcome. According to the Census, Mississippi alone has the lowest percentage of four-year degree holders at 23%.

From 2020, the program will be used by 10,000 state residents pursuing associate degree programs, including nursing.

“It checks all those boxes, is very strong, and certainly stands out as a national model,” said Jessica Thompson, vice president of the left – leaning Think Tank Institute for College Access and Success.

But Thomson warns that states are often reluctant to offer generous programs to students for the long term because their income is so closely linked to the interests of the economy.

Students, including Cruz Davis-Martinez, who remain in the Gray Hoody, look forward to speaking with high Mexico State University recruiter Josh Raisen on March 10, 2022, in high school. (AP Photo / Cedar Atanasio)

Thomson says other states, such as Oregon, have approved generous programs for graduates to cut back on budget cuts.

By 2020, Oregon had cut its budget and told 1,070 low-income students that they would not receive the help they had previously promised. Earlier this month, Oregon announced it would double the cost of living grant for low-income students.

New Mexico authorities estimate that approximately 35,000 students will be able to attend the expanded program. But that number is likely to shrink as universities across the state have already raised tuition, much to the dismay of state higher education officials.

New Mexico Tech Tuition increased by 9%, citing increased costs and the availability of new scholarships. Others raised tuition by about 4%.

From July, universities will have to negotiate with the state about the tuition increase limit in order to participate in the free tuition program. But the law did not prevent them from increasing tuition before that date.

Until next year, however, the expanded program will further liberalize existing support, allowing recent high school graduates to use federal funding for personal expenses in addition to the existing “lottery scholarship” that provides their tuition.

This is welcome news from an arts school in Santa Fe where students discuss their plans with a recruiter at New Mexico State University during the lunch break.

“Some of our parents are still repaying their loans from college,” said Zoe McDonald, 17, a cinematographer.

Painter Cruz Davis-Martinez, 18, knows he needs a four-year degree and compares the University of New Mexico to two schools in other states.

“Unfortunately, I spent most of my high school life taking double credit,” Davis-Martinez said. “I had that financial insecurity.”

At the age of 15, he started traveling 40 minutes, so he was able to take advantage of his high school paid free college classes. The idea was to get college credits to save money in college.

He now realizes that he can attend all the classes he needs without getting into debt and working too hard, which is hampering his academic performance.

According to New Mexico’s new plan, the exact cost of college will not be clear, but he will receive more support than expected. State officials are still writing the final rules of the program, what fees will be covered, and how many universities can raise tuition.

Thompson said it is important for students to be able to continue their education without debt. Still, they believe the state is in an economic slump from cutting benefits and that the federal government needs to fund more of these programs.

“I wonder if New Mexico can sustain this without federal intervention and funding participation,” she said. “I do not think other states can follow them.”

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