Keep New Mexico A Leader In College Access And Affordability

District 5

Last year, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voted to create what is now this nation’s most inclusive tuition-free college program through the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a move that has already brought our state from the bottom of the list to the top for college enrollment and made New Mexico a national exemplar in college access.

As a result of the Opportunity Scholarship, we experienced the second-highest enrollment increase of any state and the first uptick here at home in 13 years. First-time, full-time student enrollment increased by nearly ten percent. This past fall, over 36,000 students in all regions of the state benefitted, over 4,000 more New Mexicans enrolled in college, and thousands were able to stay in school or transfer to a four-year school to continue their education. Now that the spring semester has begun, I am hearing reports that some of our colleges and universities are experiencing enrollment increases that are even higher than what we saw last year.

The fact that so many New Mexicans decided to walk through the doors now open to them is a testament to the power of investing in their potential to reach higher, when the means to do so are in reach. 

As more and more New Mexicans take advantage of this record-breaking program, lawmakers are having conversations about controlling the cost of the scholarship. While these are valid discussions, the typical response has not been to give time to study the return on investment of the Opportunity Scholarship or to make long-term sustainability a priority, but to limit demand by limiting student eligibility.

The term “guardrails” is most frequently used in reference to budget and policy recommendations that seek to alter or limit the Opportunity Scholarship. This rhetoric aims to suggest economic responsibility or a helping hand, but students and advocates see these gatekeeping efforts for what they are – barriers for students who already must overcome odds to enter college. It suggests that some feel our students are a risky investment, or even that giving our residents a shot at improving their lives is wasteful spending. On the contrary, we should look at this program not as a strain on the reserves we save for a rainy day, but a way to weatherproof our state by creating a generation of skilled, marketable, and high-earning citizens.  

The Opportunity Scholarship improves upon the promise of the Lottery Scholarship by removing cost barriers from day one and covering course-specific fees, which can make up a significant portion of a student’s bill. While there are GPA and credit hour requirements to keep the scholarship, it doesn’t put students in the situation of fronting the money at the same time they are trying to navigate college, often as the first in their family. 

A good number of the students currently on the Lottery Scholarship also receive the Opportunity Scholarship. They may be in their first semester, which the Lottery doesn’t cover and may only be partially covered by other scholarships, while others receive Opportunity to cover course fees in later semesters. 

While an earlier version of the budget initially sought to exclude these students and shortchange the program, we in the Senate are taking the lead in putting students first by putting forth a fully funded, unchanged Opportunity Scholarship in House Bill 2. I ask my colleagues in the House to stand firm in believing in our students when the budget comes to them for concurrence because we can’t afford to lose ground on the progress we are making in this area.

It is certainly important to study, evaluate, and potentially adjust the Opportunity Scholarship moving forward depending upon what the data shows for enrollment, retention, and graduation rates. Discussions about sustained funding are also critical. However, curtailing the scholarship at this early stage could mean we never see the true impact of this game-changing program. 

We are already seeing the promise of the Opportunity Scholarship even before its first full year, but like pursuing a degree, this is an investment that will take years to fully manifest. We have a chance to turn today’s economic boon into prosperity that lasts for generations, but only if we double-down on our decision to invest in students. I believe that New Mexicans are capable of success if we pave the way, remove barriers, and remind them that we are not bracing ourselves for their failure, but cheering on their success.