Opportunity Knocks with Free Higher Education

Read via the Santa Fe New Mexican 

By Stephanie M. Rodriguez, Cabinet Secretary

Over the past few years, our state has expanded opportunities for New Mexicans to pursue career training and college degrees, which is an investment in accelerating our workforce and economy now and for years to come.

While we continue to be a national leader in breaking down barriers for undergraduate students at all levels, we know there are still tens of thousands of New Mexicans who could reach higher for their families and communities by continuing their education if financial obstacles are removed.

After meeting with dozens of the students who have benefited from the Opportunity Scholarship across the state last year, the thing that still strikes me the most is the stories they share about the life-changing difference free college can make. I heard from students like Debra Washburn, a student from the Navajo Nation who spoke about how the ability to afford gas to travel to campus can be a barrier for students. Because of the Opportunity Scholarship, she is pursuing a counseling degree at Navajo Technical University and plans to work in her community while providing for her family.

The Opportunity Scholarship and Lottery Scholarship already have seen widespread success, with over 18,000 scholarships awarded this fall, but expanding funding in 2022 means that all New Mexicans seeking to continue their education would be eligible for a scholarship. For just 1 percent of the state’s overall budget, we can break down barriers for up to 35,000 New Mexicans and empower New Mexico families, communities and our economy for the future.

Working together with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, students, community partners and lawmakers, we will deliver a comprehensive free college package that finally serves the diverse needs of New Mexicans, whether they are part-time students, working parents, returning adult learners or recent high school graduates. The average age of college students in New Mexico is 26, and the majority of students attend part time because of work and family obligations. Despite being the majority, this type of student has historically had few financial support options available to them.

The New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship has been a game-changer for helping students who don’t have the luxury of attending college full time or right out of high school, and the Lottery Scholarship once again covers the full cost of tuition for recent high school graduates attending full time. However, we need to help even more students if we are to improve the well-being of our citizens and state.

Nearly a quarter of New Mexicans have completed some college coursework but not attained a degree, and half of our population has no education beyond high school. When you consider that over two-thirds of jobs in our state require education or training beyond high school and that certificate- and degree-holders earn better wages and face lower unemployment rates, it is clear why paving the way to these opportunities is so critical.

If students and their families believe college is affordable, they are more likely to attend. A research report released this week by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that nearly 40 percent of students who believe college is unaffordable never attend. Expanding free college means no New Mexican has to view cost as an obstacle to higher education.

We know that when we invest in our citizens, they build fulfilling lives, happier and healthier families, and more stable communities. When people can go to school, pursue meaningful careers and contribute to the same communities where they were born and raised, we all benefit; our state will benefit. Together, we can reach higher for New Mexico.

The New Mexico Higher Education Department was established in 2005 and oversees the state’s public and tribal colleges, universities and special schools. It also oversees adult education and literacy programs statewide, manages state-funded financial aid programs and capital projects for higher education institutions, provides college readiness services via the GEAR UP program, and grants state authorization to private colleges operating within New Mexico. For more information, visit hed.state.nm.us.

Stephanie Rodriguez is Cabinet secretary for the Department of Higher Education.