College president: NM Opportunity Scholarship is "game changer" for Navajo Nation

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The president of Diné College is calling the recently enacted New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship Act a "game changer" when it comes to providing access to higher education to members of the Navajo Nation.

Charles "Monty" Roessel, president of the tribal college that has campuses in Shiprock and Crownpoint, explained on March 7 that based on figures in the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, about 30,000 people within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation have some college education but no degree.

Since New Mexico is considered to comprise about one-third of the tribal land, the scholarship has the potential to help about 10,000 people earn either a certificate, associate degree or bachelor's degree, he said.

"That would have a transformational impact on the economy, of not just the Navajo Nation, but of the region," Roessel said. "That's how big this is, being able to move and change the workforce. What this provides is amazing."

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New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs into law SB 140, expanding free college tuition to most residents, in a ceremony at Western New Mexico University in Silver City, N.M. on Friday, March 4, 2022.

Now that free tuition is available for state residents who meet the criteria, the challenge for tribal colleges is to offer degree programs that meet the community's demand, he added.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed Senate Bill 140 to expand the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship to include adult learners and part-time students attending in-state colleges and universities, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported on March 4.

The newspaper reported with an initial appropriation of $75 million, the law covers tuition and fees for undergraduate students at two- or four-year higher education institutions, including tribal colleges, in the state. Students are required to enroll in at least six and no more than 18 credit hours and maintain a 2.5 grade point average.

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Diné College President Charles "Monty" Roessel talks about the new math and science building at the college's south campus in Shiprock during the groundbreaking ceremony on June 28, 2021.

In addition to advancing the tribe's economy, Roessel said, the scholarship also helps tribal members think differently about higher education, especially those who see family members use the scholarship to earn certificates or degrees.

"The other thing it does, is it creates a role model in every community, a role model in every house," he said.

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Roessel was among those in attendance in 2019 when Lujan Grisham unveiled her plan to offer full college tuition to state residents through the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship.

"For over a quarter of a century, New Mexico has been a national leader in providing free college to its residents," Lujan Grisham said the March 4 news release from her office. "A fully funded Opportunity Scholarship opens the door for every New Mexican to reach higher, strengthening our economy, our families and our communities."

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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