New Mexico has announced a plan to make public college and university free for all residents in the state, a proposal considered one of the most ambitious attempts to make higher education more accessible.
The plan, if approved by the state's Democratic-controlled legislature, would allow students, regardless of household income, to attend any of the 29 state's public colleges and universities. State officials estimate that the program, officially called the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, will help 55,000 students each year attend college.
Calling the plan "the moonshot for higher education," New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the initiative on Wednesday at the New Mexico Higher Education Summit in Albuquerque.
"It means better enrollment. It means better student success. In the long run, it means economic growth, improved outcomes for New Mexico workers and thinkers and parents," Lujan Grisham said. "It means a better trained and better compensated workforce."
Officials calculate the plan would carry the annual price tag between $25 and $35 million and the funding would be drawn from the state's general fund, which has recently seen revenue boosts due to oil production in the Permian Basin that stretches across parts of West Texas and southeastern New Mexico.
Relying heavily on resource extraction for revenue has forced the state to pull back on spending, as in 2016 when a decline in oil and gas production made state officials slash funding to public universities to close a budget gap.
Even if the funding source is volatile, Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University who studies the cost of higher education, told NPR that the program is still worthwhile.
She said it will help students whose families earn too much money to qualify for federal subsidy programs for low-income students, like Pell grants, but still find the cost of higher education inaccessible.
"It is money with a high ROI," she said, referring to a return on investment. "Right now they are losing talented people dropping out of college because their families are too rich to be able to qualify for the Pell grant and too poor to be able to finish college, that's economically inefficient. You want those people to get their credentials and get out into the work force. This program will pay for itself."
Twenty other states have set up tuition-free education initiatives for two-year community colleges. And New York passed legislation in April that created a scholarship program to allow students to go to public colleges and universities without paying tuition. But there are household income requirements and other rules, including that recipients live and work in New York for several years after graduating. The New Mexico proposal has no such restrictions. And some experts wonder if the lack of program regulations is one of its flaws.
Wil Del Pilar, the vice president for higher education at The Education Trust, a nonpartisan Washington research group, said there is a risk that wealthier students will benefit the most in the program, since there are no income requirements.
"When you have limited state dollars, I would argue that we should target those dollars toward those who struggle the most to pay," Del Pilar told NPR.
Like the New York's scholarship program, New Mexico's covers just tuition, not other living costs.
To Del Pilar, that is a problem. He said the promise of free college takes more than eliminating tuition.
Paying for housing, meals, books and transportation are still challenges for many low-income students, he said.
"Students show up to community colleges believing that they are going to get ... free college. And what they realize is there are all these other expenses. And so, students end up working. If you're a low-income student and you're working, you're not studying. You're maybe not taking a full course load," Del Pilar told NPR. "You're not joining a club or doing an internship, or going to faculty office hours. Students promised free college will be robbed from these things because they are forced to work," he said.
The program's funding would fill in whatever financial gaps are left after students exhaust state and federal aid. Officials hope lessening the burden of paying for college will help keep residents from leaving the state for opportunity.
"This program is an absolute game-changer for New Mexico," Lujan Grisham said in a statement. "Higher education in this state, a victim of the recession, has been starved in recent years. We are pivoting to a robust reinvestment in higher learning – specifically and directly in our students."
Studies have shown that college graduates in New Mexico have some of the lowest debt levels in the country. According to the Institute for College Access & Success, the class of 2017 owed an average of $21,000 – only Utah had a lower debt load for recent graduates.
The state also offers in-state students relatively affordably tuition at public schools. For instance, in-state students who attend the University of New Mexico pay $7,556 in tuition and fees for one academic year.
Still, Goldrick-Rab pointed out that New Mexico has a low rate of college participation among low-income students. The state has one of the highest poverty rates in the West and a high unemployment rate.
Goldrick-Rab expects that the first effect the policy will have, if it is implemented, will be more economic diversity on college campuses.
"Most people in New Mexico are already being priced out of education," Goldrick-Rab said. "This is a state with declining investment in higher education," she said. "We're now seeing a moment that they're talking about doing something that will have enormous benefit, especially to students at community colleges."