New Mexico Unveils Bold Plan To Offer Free College For All State Residents

The initiative, announced Wednesday by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, would cover students' tuition at the state's 29 public colleges and universities.

New Mexico has announced an ambitious plan to make its public colleges and universities free for all in-state residents, no matter their income. If approved by the state’s legislature, the plan would be the first of its kind in the United States.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, formally introduced the initiative — which she described as a “moonshot for higher education” — at an education summit in Albuquerque on Wednesday.

The program would help cover “100% of undergraduate tuition” at New Mexico’s 29 public colleges and universities for some 55,000 students annually, Lujan Grisham’s office said. The program — dubbed the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship — is estimated to cost the state between $25 million and $35 million every year.

Lujan Grisham’s announcement at the New Mexico Higher Education Summit was met with a standing ovation and applause, CNN reported

“It means better enrollment. It means better student success,” the governor said in a statement of the program. “In the long run, it means economic growth, improved outcomes for New Mexico workers and thinkers and parents. It means a better trained and better compensated workforce.”

The ambitious plan will first need to be approved by the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature, which will also need to decide how to appropriate the funds needed for the program.

Some of the money will come from existing federal grants and scholarships that already cover some students’ tuition; but it remains unclear where the remaining resources will come from. The New York Times said the state plans to use its growing oil production revenues to defray some of the costs.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Philadelphia’s Temple University who studies higher education costs, said she was confident that New Mexico’s plan could “pay for itself.” 

The program has a high return on investment, she told NPR, adding: “Right now [New Mexico is] losing talented people dropping out of college because their families are too rich to be able to qualify for the [federal] 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 workforce.”

As NPR noted, New Mexico has one of the highest poverty rates in the United States ― and also one of the lowest rates of college participation among low-income students.

A January study found that the college participation rate for students from low-income families is only 22% in New Mexico; the national average is 34%.

Lujan Grisham said the introduction of the higher education plan in New Mexico would be “an absolute game-changer” for the state.

“Higher education in this state, a victim of the recession, has been starved in recent years,” she said in a statement. “We are pivoting to a robust reinvestment in higher learning — specifically and directly in our students. By covering the last dollar of tuition and fees, by making college significantly more accessible to New Mexicans of every income, of every background, of every age, we are putting students first.” 

Not everyone, however, is convinced.

Republican state Rep. David Gallegos lambasted the plan as not “sustainable.” 

“Where do we take the money from? Public safety? Public education? I just don’t know where we continue the money,” he told CNN.

As concerns mount nationwide about the rising costs of higher education and the crippling student debt saddling millions of Americans, several states have introduced programs to make it easier for some students to attend college. 

Citing data by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Times reported that, as of last year, 17 states had programs offering free tuition ― mostly at 2-year colleges ― to at least some students. 

In 2017, New York became the first U.S. state to make tuition free for two- and four-year public colleges for students from low- and middle-income families. 

Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed legislation to provide first-time, full-time students in the state free tuition for two years of community college.