Governor proposes free college for New Mexico students

Algernon D'Ammassa
Las Cruces Sun-News
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a plan Wednesday that would make New Mexico the second state to offer full college tuition to state residents.

This developing story was last updated at 5:40 p.m.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a plan Wednesday that would make New Mexico the second state to offer full college tuition to state residents.

The governor announced her plan at the state's Higher Education Summit at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque. The proposal is for a "last dollar" program covering 100 percent of undergraduate tuition and fees not paid for by federal grants or the New Mexico Lottery Scholarship.

Branded the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, the plan is estimated to benefit 55,000 New Mexico students at all 29 public higher education institutions in the state, beginning in the fall of 2020.

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The scholarship, applicable to two- and four-year institutions, would be administered by the New Mexico Higher Education Department and available for New Mexico residents with a high school diploma or equivalency. A minimum grade-point average of 2.5 would be a requirement of the scholarship.

In this July 9, 2019 file photo, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham provides a progress report on her first six months in office during a news conference in Santa Fe, N.M. New results show less than a third of all New Mexico students are proficient in reading and only about one fifth are proficient in math. The results come days after Lujan Grisham fired Public Education Secretary Karen Trujillo.

In a statement, Lujan Grisham called it "a game-changer for New Mexico" and said it would culminate in "improved outcomes for New Mexico workers and families and parents (and) a better trained and better compensated workforce." 

Ultimately, her proposal would require approval in the state legislature.

Role of oil and gas industry

The New York Times broke news of the governor's proposal Wednesday morning, stating that the governor “plans to use climbing revenues from oil production to pay for much of the costs” of the scholarship.

New Mexico Oil and Gas Association Executive Director Ryan Flynn issued a statement following the announcement.

“Big, bold ideas like this are the type the transformational opportunities New Mexico now has because of the success and growth of the oil and natural gas industry," Flynn said. "This is a great example of how the Governor can leverage increased oil and natural gas production to the benefit of all New Mexicans regardless of where they live, work, or go to school. Our state has enjoyed two consecutive billion-dollar budget surpluses on the strength oil and natural gas, and we’re committed to continuing our role as the economic foundation of New Mexico while safely and responsibly producing the energy we need.”

Flynn pointed to an industry study predicting the industry could attract $174 billion in infrastructure investments in the Permian Basin through 2030. 

MoreNew Mexico gets millions more in revenue from oil and gas than predicted

Presently, a boom in production and recent discovery of more supply in the Permian Basic has boosted general fund revenue fiscal year far exceeding the state's current $7 billion budget. 

Oil rigs pump in Carlsbad on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019.

Executives of oil and gas companies attending an annual energy summit in Carlsbad last week expressed confidence in long-term production in the region.

However, prior to an upturn in revenue from the oil and gas industry in 2018, sagging tax revenues from the oil and gas sector in 2016 led to deep cuts in public K-12 education.

'It requires a commitment of priorities'

In attendance at the higher education summit was Western New Mexico University President Joseph Shepard, who said he first heard rumors of the governor's proposal on Tuesday and likened it to the Apollo mission. 

Her announcement to the summit did not include details, he said, but presented an objective Shepard likened to President John F. Kennedy's 1961 challenge to place an astronaut safely on the moon within that decade. 

Lujan Grisham herself has frequently described her ambition for improving education in New Mexico as a "moonshot." 

Shepard acknowledged the need to assess consistent revenue streams supporting the program.

"It requires a commitment of priorities — the moonshot, so to speak," Shepard said when reached by phone in Albuquerque. "Often we say, 'we don’t have the budget for it,' but budget is about how we allocate resources."

He also said, to those who criticize New Mexico's economy for being overly reliant on revenue from the oil and gas industry, that increasing affordable access to higher education was essential for diversifying the state's economy.

Shepard said the plan's next step will be the New Mexico Higher Education Advisory Committee, which includes state cabinet secretaries for higher education, the department of workforce solutions, finance and administration, economic development, and the director of the legislative finance committee, or delegates.

Tribal colleges included in proposal

The governor's office confirmed Wednesday that the tuition proposal would include New Mexico's four tribal colleges: Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and the Crownpoint and Shiprock campuses of Diné College.

Diné College President Charles "Monty" Roessel.

Diné College President Charles "Monty" Roessel hailed the proposal, which follows legislation earlier this year opening lottery scholarships to students at tribal colleges in New Mexico.

"I think it's a great plan and I give the governor a lot of credit," Roessel said, adding, "I think it's a wonderful opportunity for all Native Americans."

Roessel was also in attendance at the summit.

A gift to Texas and Arizona?

Executive vice president Ed DesPlas of San Juan College in Farmington said, “This will effectively close the gaps between our skills and education base and our workforce and employer needs. The Opportunity Scholarship would provide equity across the board –  New Mexico will become a place where opportunity prevails.”

A Republican critic, however, said it might boost opportunity elsewhere instead.

Gavin Clarkson, who taught at New Mexico State University's college of business prior to serving in the Trump Administration, and is currently a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, criticized the governor's proposal.

“Unfortunately, making public colleges free for even the wealthiest of families will be a big boon to workforce development — in Texas and Arizona," Clarkson said in a statement. "It does nothing to address the lack of high-quality jobs that would keep our college graduates here in New Mexico."

Clarkson added, "If we’re going to subsidize higher education, we owe it to both students and taxpayers to target those resources towards empowering citizens with the kind of skills that will actually add value to New Mexico’s economy.”  

Preparing for a 21st-century economy

The proposal was welcome news to Tracey Bryan, CEO of the nonprofit Bridge of Southern New Mexico, which promotes educational advancement and workforce development in Doña Ana County.

"We know that as little as $500 can stand in the way of a student finishing a degree," Bryan said. "If this proposal can bridge those financial gaps, then it's an investment that will pay off in long-term returns to the state."

New Mexico State University Chancellor Dan Arvizu was also in attendance at Wednesday's summit.

New Mexico State University Dan Arvizu speaks at an event in Las Cruces. Monday, May 20, 2019.

In a statement, Arvizu wrote, “No matter what socioeconomic background our students arrive from, attaining a degree positions them to earn higher salaries, to live healthier lives and to achieve greater successes than someone without a degree. In turn, this helps their families and lifts the communities where they live. We are eager to see where this endeavor can lead our state. Right now, we are assessing what implications this announcement may have for the entire NMSU system.”

Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley called the governor's proposal "brave" yet essential for helping new generations of New Mexico workers. He said that students who continue their education beyond secondary school with minimal student debt will have more options to explore job opportunities or establish themselves as entrepreneurs.

"Since 2008 and the great recession, over 95 percent of the new jobs that have been created in the country require more than a high school degree," McCamley said. "We're not just talking about bachelor's degrees, we're talking about associate's degrees and industry-specific certificates. The point of it is, you need more than a high school degree to make it in a 21st-century economy and that's why the governor's proposal is so important."

Hannah Grover and Noel Lyn Smith of the Farmington Daily Times contributed to this report.

Algernon D'Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.