New Mexico’s new free-college proposal could be a game-changer for students

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham unveiled a plan Wednesday to make public college tuition free for all state residents.

It’s a “an absolute game-changer” for the state, according to Grisham, a Democrat. Experts say it may well provide an example of good practice for state and local officials across the country who are crafting their own free college programs.

If state lawmakers approve the proposal, the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship program will pay for all state-college tuition and fees that aren’t already covered by federal grants and a state lottery. That’s an unpaid gap ranging from 25% to 40% of a student’s tuition bill. The program doesn’t cover students’ living expenses.

No age requirements combined with no income limits will make a powerful one-two punch.

The program could underwrite tuition for the estimated 55,000 students at the state’s 29 public universities and community colleges as soon as fall 2020. The program will cost between $25 and $35 million a year. The state will pay for the program through its general fund, a Grisham spokeswoman told MarketWatch. She noted oil and gas revenue have been boosting the fund in recent years.

New Mexico isn’t the first state to offer free college, but it’s one to watch for other states considering similar initiatives, experts say. “It feels like a good step forward,” added Julie Margetta Morgan, a fellow studying higher education at the Roosevelt Institute.

Free public college is an emerging response to rising school costs and to the $1.5 trillion Americans already owe in student loans. At least 20 states have free college programs in some fashion, in addition to another 150 cities, counties and school districts.

But they all come with a hodge-podge of conditions, which range from age restrictions to the type of school and income requirements. For example, New York’s Excelsior program will pay for public-college tuition for eligible students from families earning up to $125,000.

Michelle Miller-Adams, a senior researcher at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich., notes there’s still a lot of unexplained details surrounding the new free college plan. “What I like about the sound of the New Mexico program is how simple they are keeping it,” she said.

Here’s three ways New Mexico stands apart from other states:

There’s no income requirement

If students can pick between two- and four-year options, that gives them “a lot more choice,” Miller-Adams said. And having a choice matters, she added. “The two- and four-year option allows students to do a better job finding a better fit, which really helps with outcomes.”

Morgan said across-the-board rules on schools and income were critical. “If we want to achieve more equitable access to education,” it has to include the entire college system.

There’s no age requirement

New Mexico is not alone here. Washington State doesn’t have age requirements in its forthcoming free college plan set to go live next year, Miller-Adams said. But no age requirements combined with no income limits will make a powerful one-two punch, she said. Many adults who took some college courses but never got there degree, she said. But “it’s really the credentialing and that degree that help you in the labor force.”

Around 37% of 19.9 million students at college this fall are 25 and above, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. “If we want a free college plan that match the reality of who college students are these days, we can’t have age restrictions,” Morgan added.

It appears to be a very simple program

Miller-Adams said the rules — at least, as they appear now — are easy to follow. That matters, and not just for people looking to avoid a maze of paperwork and confusing regulations. “The more fine print, the worse you are, because it makes the messaging harder,” she said.

Complicated rules can depress participation in free-college programs, she said. It’s also important to keep the message simple so the next generation can also hear it loud and clear, she said. If kids go to school understanding there’s a free-college program waiting for them, “that could be a pretty powerful tool for creating a more college-going culture,” Miller-Adams said.

Morgan at the Roosevelt Institute agreed simplicity has its benefits. But it really matters how officials carry out the program, she said.

Morgan pointed to the federal public service loan forgiveness program as something that sounds simple, but really isn’t. After 10 years of payments, teachers and other public sector and non-profit workers are technically allowed to wipe away their student loan debts. But the Education Department has rejected 99% of the forgiveness applications.

“Simplicity has to be both in the message and the design of the program,” Morgan said.

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