New Mexico lawmakers begin push for tuition-free college

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New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, right, on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, signed legislation that ramps up spending aimed at encouraging participation in the 2020 Census, during a news conference in Santa Fe, N.M. The new law devotes an additional $8 million to promote census participation and safeguard federal spending based in New Mexico. Lujan Grisham also spoke in favor of a bill that would provide a tuition-free education to 55,000 students at public colleges and universities. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Adults who return to school to pursue professional certificates and two-year degrees are getting top priority under a proposal to provide free tuition to in-state students at public colleges and universities in New Mexico.

A panel House legislators advanced a bill Monday that fulfills a pledge by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to create an “opportunity scholarship" that eliminated tuition costs for as many as 55,000 students.

The so-called middle-dollar approach to college subsidies would come into play after existing state scholarships, and before federal grants and military-based aid — allowing students to stretch public funding to pay for rent, food and clothing without racking up debt.

“One of the great merits is that it will help reduce student debts," said Dan López, offering expert testimony as the former president of the New Mexico Institute of Technology.

Proceeds from the state lottery already cover roughly 70% of tuition for many four-year undergraduate students — but don't help people who seek job training certificates and associated degrees long after high school.

Starting in the fall, students of ages 24 and older would receive free tuition to take at least two courses a semester toward a certificate or associate degree. In the fall of 2021, the state would start underwriting the full cost of tuition and fees for recent high school graduates.

The programs would cost taxpayers $26 million in its first year, and $45 annually when fully implemented. Tuition rates are set by local college boards and can increase without Legislative approval.

Higher Education Secretary Kate O'Neill highlighted the bill's aim of shoring up the state workforce, citing teacher vacancies that are filled by immigrants and a reliance on costly temporary nurses as examples of gaps.

Those exiting the military at any age would qualify for tuition-free continuing education.

The bill advanced on a 11-2 vote from its first committee hearing with two Republicans in opposition. The Legislature has until Feb. 20 to send legislation to the governor.

At a news conference, Lujan Grisham expressed guarded optimism that the Legislature would back the bill.

“I don't go to a community where students and their parents don't say to me, 'This is the best investment,'” she said. It's “not that it just attracts young people, but it's returning adult students to college.”

Republican Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences voted against the proposal after arguing that the state is better off targeting specific industries with labor shortages rather than offering across-the-board financial support for students.

She wondered aloud whether the state can deter students from borrowing more money.

“How do we make sure they don't take out a student loan, buy a car,” she said.

O'Neill said the new tuition scholarships would be accompanied by financial literacy counseling for students.

She also responded to concerns about possible tuition increases that would be passed on to taxpayers, noting that the administration would share guidelines and context about tuition rates nationwide.

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