Free College For New Mexico Residents, Gov. Grisham Signed Senate Bill 140

New Mexico has enacted landmark legislation that provides free college tuition to state citizens and Native American tribes along the state’s border.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed Senate Bill 140, the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship Act, this month, making college tuition free for most New Mexicans and tribes in the state’s borders.

“A fully funded Opportunity Scholarship opens the door for every New Mexican to reach higher, strengthening our economy, our families and our communities,” said Lujan Grisham in a news release. “Signing this legislation sends a clear message to New Mexicans that we believe in them and the contributions they will make for their families and the future of our great state.”

She signed the measure among students at Western New Mexico University in Silver City on March 4th.

According to Stephanie Montoya, public relations officer for the New Mexico Higher Education Department, SB 140 expanded an existing free-tuition scholarship program for high school graduates to include any person seeking higher education or work certification training.

“It is the most wide-reaching, tuition-free scholarship program in the U.S.,” she said. “The benefits are huge for New Mexico families and our economy.”

Recent high school graduates, returning adult learners, part-time students, career training certificates, associate and bachelor’s degrees, and summer courses are all eligible for free college tuition.

To be eligible, students must have lived in the state for at least 12 months, be enrolled in at least six credit hours at a public college or university, and continue to enroll each semester.

When authorities in New Mexico looked at the statistics, they discovered that the majority of higher education students are beyond the age of 26 and so do not qualify for the free tuition program.

“Now you don’t have to be a recent graduate,” Montoya said.

According to Montoya, the free college tuition program in New Mexico is also offered to Native American tribes in the state’s borderlands, who are included in the definition of “eligible resident.” The Ute Mountain Utes, Southern Utes, and Navajo all have reservations near the New Mexico border.

In 2022, the New Mexico General Appropriations Act allocates $75 million to the free-college tuition program, which could assist up to 35,000 students, or more than half of all undergraduate students in the state, starting this fall. The government American Rescue Plan Act supplied $63 million of the financing.

The free-tuition program not only covers full tuition and fees at in-state public colleges and universities, but it also allows students to combine federal aid like Pell grants, local scholarships, and private scholarships to help pay for books, materials, housing, food, transportation, child care, and other college expenses.

Montoya believes that the legislature’s continued financing and support for the tuition program year after year looks good and is considered as an investment in the state. In New Mexico, one-quarter of the population lacks a high school diploma.

“A more talented workforce will meet the emerging needs of our state,” Montoya said. “There is a lot of return on the investment.”

She claims that in the last ten years, New Mexico has gained 10,000 jobs with an average yearly income of $90,000 and practically all of them requiring post-secondary education.

Saving money on college tuition boosts state citizens’ disposable income and boosts the economy. Higher education results in a more employable workforce, which relieves the need on government aid programs.

According to Montoya, student and instructor advocacy was important in getting the measure passed.

“There was an outpouring of relief and excitement from students and families when the bill passed,” she said. “Now they don’t have to worry how to pay for college next year.”

“With the Opportunity Scholarship Act, New Mexico has made history and set a national example of how states can break down barriers for students everywhere,” said Higher Education Department Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez in the news release. “This would not have been possible without the leadership of Gov. Lujan Grisham, the advocacy of New Mexico students who propelled this legislation forward by sharing their experiences, and the work of our many other partners at the state and national level who have helped us permanently change the game for every New Mexican who wants to pursue higher education.”

Senator Liz Stefanics and Representative Joy Garratt, both Democrats, sponsored Senate Bill 140.

“I am an adult learner who actually graduated from college by taking six credits per semester, so this bill is personally important to me,” said Garratt in the release. “Working together … we have laid a strong foundation in early childhood education, K-12 education, and now, higher education. I know it will change the lives of thousands of New Mexicans.”

There are 29 two-year and four-year institutions that are members of the free-tuition program. There is no need to fill out an application. If you are a qualified student enrolled in a public college or university in New Mexico, the financial aid office at your chosen institution will endeavor to apply the award.

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