At a roundtable discussion Wednesday in Española, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham expressed hope the state would become a leader in the national dialogue on free college and be a place where anyone could pursue a degree with few barriers.

“To do that, it’s not $18 million, it’s not $28 million, it’s likely far higher,” she said of the role of state funding, adding that New Mexico has only had “a little flavor” of what could come in terms of state-funded scholarships.

Wednesday’s roundtable at Northern New Mexico College comes on the heels of a $48 million request from the Higher Education Department that would more than double funding for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship during the 2023 budget cycle. The scholarship covers remaining tuition costs for eligible students after state aid is applied.

After the event, Higher Education Department Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez said her agency is working on a new budget request that would include the cost of “free college” for all.

“The governor has asked me, what is the free college solution beyond that?” Rodriguez said of the recent funding request. “I’m doing my due diligence to make sure it’s the number that can make free college happen.”

Rodriguez believes free college could boost enrollment at campuses statewide, some of which have seen fewer students in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lujan Grisham introduced the Opportunity Scholarship in 2019 as a $26 million program to cover students’ college tuition costs after federal grant and scholarship funds were applied. It was met with some resistance by administrators and legislators who thought tuition might balloon as a result.

“We need to be better stewards of information to our legislative body and everyone else in our general public on why free college is important,” Rodriguez said. “We really need to be better about presenting [that] in the future.”

Lawmakers allocated $17 million for the program in the state’s regular legislative budget proposal but made it available only to community college students. In June 2020, the amount was reduced to $5 million after a revenue decline caused by the pandemic.

As of early January, the scholarship has helped more than 15,000 students. Now, it’s open to all New Mexico residents who are 18 and older, are signed up for at least six college credits at a public or tribal college or university in the state, and who maintain a 2.5 GPA or higher.

It covers any gap in tuition and fees owed after state aid is applied, and remaining federal financial aid can be put toward living expenses and textbooks.

Debra Washburn, 50, a counseling student at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, spoke in favor of the scholarship Wednesday.

Each school day, she makes the more than 100-mile drive to her classes from Waterflow near the Navajo Nation.

She’ll graduate by spring, after an internship, she said.

Washburn left Waterflow at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday to attend the roundtable, which included several Democratic lawmakers.

Because of personal hardships, she wasn’t able to go to college until later in life.

“College seems mandatory for us,” she said. “When I finally decided to go back to school, I faced some barriers.”

Washburn had trouble getting to school and paying for it, while battling Wi-Fi issues in her rural community.

During the pandemic, she completed homework from her car as she bounced from hot spot to hot spot.

She emphasized the connection between access to the internet and access to college.

“Receiving this New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship took a load off my shoulders,” she said.

(31) comments

Bill Cass

I would encourage anyone who thinks this is a good idea to watch Bill Maher's discussion on "Free" college. He exposes college for what it is. A playground. In most cases college is simply unnecessary. The government has made it necessary so it can jack up the costs. With rare exceptions a couple of years of on the job training will be much more beneficial then a college degree. I really don't care if my barista wants a degree in cultural studies. But I shouldn't be asked to pay for it.

Red Eagle

Well, it’s definitely re-election time! Another program this state can not afford, but looks good for MLG, makes her look like she actually cares. Where is the $$ coming from? I don’t think she explained that…

Khal Spencer

Where there is smoke, there are mirrors...

Mike Johnson


Chris Mechels

This is another silly idea from MLG; good PR, bad idea.

Unlike other state that have a lottery scholarship program, ours is NOT needs based, so we give money to those who don't need it. This is called POLITICS, giving money to those who don't need it, to pass the bill. Lets fix that please. The "free college" idea, as noted in the many comments, does NOT fix the problem, just throws money out the window. MLG does a lot of that; our money, her PR.

Laura Stokes

The percentage of jobs that requires a college degree today is as high or higher than when free high school was established. It is pretty well understood that a more highly educated population would benefit the economy of the country. So why shouldn't college be free? That is, of course, that it would be free to the students. The taxpayers would pay for it, as it pays for other socially responsible program.s

Bill Cass

So instead, why don't we decrease the number of jobs that requires a college degree? Why in the world should I or any other tax payer pay for someone to get a liberal arts degree in psychology, art, theater or cultural studies? None of these are necessary or helpful. College has become a scam. The rate of inflation for colleges is somewhere around 5x that for the rest of the economy. And for what? A bunch of baristas with degrees?

Kirk Holmes

Wouldn’t be surprised if MLG pushed for free “campus cannabis” as part of the free for all package.

Patricio R. Downs

I think you guys got most of the points. When the Legislative Lottery Scholarship came about in the late 90s, tuition was still somewhat affordable and if students didn't get a "full ride", it would be pretty darn close. From then until now, in-state tuition at UNM has gone from $1513/semester (2001) for a full-time load to $9228/semester (2021). I don't know if the 2001 number included fees as well - the 2021 number does - but even so, in 20 years the cost of attendance (not including books, materials, additional fees like lab fees if you're a STEM major, etc.) it costs 6 times as much to attend as it did 20 years ago. Have our incomes gone up at the same rate? (I wish they had - I would have retired my mortgage long ago!) Mind you, I'm not singling out UNM; other higher ed institutions have pretty much done the same thing.

How much of that extra expense is "extras" that were nice to have rather than necessities needed to keep up with the world? I'll pick on UNM again and say that within those 20 years, University Stadium (shoot, I don't know who the sponsor is this week - Wise Pies? Dreamstyle Homes? Branch Law Firm?) was remodeled, as was The Pit (again, who is the sponsor this week?), even though New Mexico is firmly a mid-major team that performs like one in its revenue sports. That wasn't cheap - nor paid for by outside sponsors. Other higher ed institutions have done similar things with similar results.

So, "free" college? I think there are a LOT of things that need to be fixed with higher ed (and higher ed institutions) before we start talking about that. Remediation rates - rates of students who can't successfully enroll in college-level English or math courses - are actually pretty high. "Free" college won't fix the problem of a student coming in and taking 2-3 remedial-level English and/or math courses JUST to be able to take anything else on the menu. (Just about all science courses have a math prerequisite - usually college algebra, statistics, or some other college-level math; nearly all other program classes (like history, communications, etc.) have college-level English as a pre- or c0-requisite. If someone spends their first year just getting past the remedial stuff, that makes their college career that much longer (assuming they continue until they get an award, which most don't). I'd have to agree, this seems like a "throw it against the wall and see if it sticks" idea that's been floated for a while.

Khal Spencer

[thumbup] When I was on the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology faculty of the U of Hawaii, we lost many of our majors as soon as they had to take college level math, chemistry, or physics classes. If students are not prepared for college as you say, the costs are not the rate limiting factor, neccesarily, to success.

My wife ran the remedial studies program at a nearby state school. More than half of the entering students were taking remedial math and about half were taking remedial English. Fix that first.

Lupe Molina

Boomers need to realize that 'back in their day' college was actually affordable and wages were relatively higher. You all will also still capitalize on Social Security, not likely to be around for the rest of us. So tax the wealthy and make college free. Funny, people on another article complaining about an 18 year old punk in a driveby. If we had free college, maybe he'd have been studying instead of acting a fool.

Emily Koyama

Patricio Downs makes a very salient is clear that the cost of college has outpaced inflation by multiples. If the "Guvment" starts making it "free" (not really, because nothing is free), we can expect the colleges and universities to go on giddy spending sprees, and tuition will continue to skyrocket.

And, as Khal said, free college is useless if you're sending kids there that can't read or write, or do simple math.

Throwing gobs of taxpayer money at the education issues in NM is not going to solve everything wrong with our State, our problems are deeper than that.

Khal Spencer

If college is "free" to students, there will be very strong efforts to control costs, at least in any reasonable state. That means loss of autonomy for the school. Or, as you guess, colleges will just spend like drunken sailors and pass the costs on to the state budget who in turn will pass it on to everybody else. I don't think there are enough rich people in New Mexico to float the bill even if Progressives dream this is possible.

Khal Spencer

My suspicion is this 18 year old's habits were well set long ago. Try again. Maybe start with parental involvement and an effort to make K-12 work better.

Joseph Tafoya

Lupe, I am not sure where you got the impression that “back in the day” college was more affordable. Just because one might have been paying fewer dollars out of pocket by the time graduation day rolled around instead of today's costs, today's wages are probably 4x greater than they were then. Going to college “back in the day” was more of a privilege than it is today. It was no gravy train for boomers like you would like to believe. From a very young age, they knew there was a threat of atomic annihilation. Many boomers will remember ducking under a desk. Then there was Vietnam, because there was a draft at the time many going to college had deferments and never saw the horrors of war. Boomers survived all this and much more while paying into a “Social Security System” whose coffers have been raided by politicians to the point they are virtually empty. That is why you and others of your age will probably see less of a payout. Many people that have not paid into the system benefit from it for various reasons. Is that fair? About that 18-year-old punk, his schooling has nothing to do with his values. Those are learned from those that they associate with. If you believe in your comment, I have a “Unicorn” to sell you.

Bill Cass

In a recent poll, the average amount of time kids spend studying in college is six hours a week. So he would have probably not been studying. Have you seen what colleges are doing these days? Lazy rivers, rock climbing walls, pubs, etc. College is a waste of money in most cases. Instead of making it free we should decrease the need for it. I really don't care if my barista has a liberal arts degree. I just don't want to pay for it.

Raquel Trujillo

As Inread the other comments I can't help but think about how spoiled you all sound. Free tuition is not a free ride! Parents or students still need to pay for class fees, books, room and board, meal plans, parking passes...other fees and supplies. Yes they will appreciate what they pay for and yes when you have to pay you try harder not to fail. I graduated back in 1997, I worked part time and was a full time student. I lived at home with my parents so that helped. However even though my parents were getting by, they could not put me through college. I paid for it myself. Working one semester without school so I could afford tuition the next semester. I got a trade licence, and followed with an associate's degree before transferring to UNM where my Pell grant didn't even cover tuition! I later had to drop out only because I could not afford to pay for my education and help support my family. I would love nothing more than to go back and finish my last year and a half. You can believe that our economy will only improve when more educated people are in it. That can only happen when it has been made acceble by the masses. The people getting the ability to get a higher education will value it.

Khal Spencer

"Spoiled"? What's that old expression? You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Bill Cass

Hmm. I worked full time delivering pizzas at night and took classes during the day. Paid my own apartment, tuition, fees, books, etc. Then went to law school at night so I could work full time during the day. Parents didn't pay a dime. Neither did the taxpayer.

Mark Ortiz

Democrats have always been pretty pathetic on messaging. I here Mike and Khal's arguments on the numbers of High Schoolers unprepared and the current failure rates at UNM, NMSU etc but what if, and mind you, I won't get into cost , but what if the increase in opportunity to those that won't bother with a University, aren't qualified to go to University , those who might have a better shot at succeeding in a community college, smaller setting, not have to pay , can work, stay at home longer, actually do succeed in improving their lives, those around them, their community, and if they chose go onto a bigger learning institution? I'm just saying, the way things are going, it's not working. One aspect of the student debt that doesn't get clearly enough coverage is what is is doing to the medical field. Why pursue that route only to take on huge debt. Funny, some of these smaller conservative rural areas are in serious danger of not having access to medical care. If I'm out of medical school with huge debt, how am I going to pay it off running a clinic in a town with a population under 40,000 people? And yet these 'Mericans somehow think bringing back Trump to stop the teaching of critical race theory is a bigger issue. Sounds like they are literally going to die on that hill.

Khal Spencer

First all, I think student debt is a serious problem and that tuition has gotten out of hand. Looking at SFCC, I would want to audit how that college spends its money and decide what is important and what is fluff. I just read a story about how yet another UC campus is hiring yet another VP for Diversity, Equity, Identity, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, etc. The growth industry in college costs are not faculty salaries to be sure. Its administrative overhead and other junk.

Tuition, fees, and books and supplies at SFCC are all estimated below. We should be able to provide financial aid based on need and scholarship.

At the UNM level, it looks like the state, Fed, and other funds already foot the bill far more than tuition and fees but again, I would audit how the money is spent and provide need and scholarship based financial aid in addition to looking at how the university spends its money. After all, if Joe Taxpayer is paying for it, Joe should get a voice in how it is spent.

If we as a society decide that a post-secondary school curriculum is as critical now as K-12 was generations ago, that argues for making it free or cheap as an investment in the future. But it also argues for better controls on how colleges spend their money. I don't think the public would want to fund every silly thing a college or university does, such as Div I sports or fluffy courses that will not lead to jobs and economic growth. That's just reality--K-12 has always been about getting young people socialized and trained to be functional citizens, not "anything your heart desires". If colleges want full autonomy on how money is spent, let them pick their own pockets, i.e. private colleges and universities.

We could also better utilize tuition-for-service. For example, a B.S. in civil engineering, nursing, etc. is free if you serve your community for X years as a civil engineer, nurse, etc. One of my best high school friends went through medical school on a Federal Surgeon General's scholarship and worked for the first part of his career on a reservation in the Dakotas as payback, going to your comment about areas without medical care.

There are smart and stupid ways to address this. Let's just say I don't always trust government to do the smart thing until government has exhausted all the alternatives. I'm all in for improving the situation for students, but students have to have some skin in the game and the public has to have confidence in how its check is cashed.

Mike Johnson

I totally agree Khal, knowing what I know about NMSU, the administrative bloat and waste is unconscionable, and the waste is enormous. The students have to pay for all this, and if it is "free tuition" all tax payers do, and that is wrong and needs to stop. We don't need so many administrators, curriculum creep and duplication, and multiple boards of regents in NM. We are a poor, small state, and the university system needs a total redo from the ground up. But MLG and the legislators love the patronage system that entrenched corruption, cronyism, nepotism, and waste, and will never change it all.

Khal Spencer

Oh, and the UNM Operating budget. Meant to include that.

Khal Spencer

Someone needs to remind MLG that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Something has to pay for the state university system and that's individuals and businesses.

So one of our biggest moneymakers is the extractive industry but many of the Dems want to put a dagger in its heart. So that closes down one source. Hmmm.

Many states, both red and blue, have cut back on their support for higher education over the last half century. On top of that, colleges and universities have had a growth industry of deans, directors, special assistants to the president, etc. All diverting instructional money. Couple that with millions squandered on semiprofessional, uh, I mean collegiate sports.

I am not a fan of "free" higher ed. I think students need to have some skin in the game. But we should look at historical levels of state support for the state university and see that we are not shortchanging the system. Community colleges should be real cheap but 4 yr schools and beyond should not be as cheap as community colleges. As my wife said when she taught at a community college for 20 years, students valued what they paid for.

Joseph Tafoya

“IT'S FRREEeeee”! Just how does this work? It's paid for by the State Government. And, where does the State Government get the money to pay for it? Tax dollars. And, where do they get these tax dollars? The taxpayers, of course. So, this money is not free and the taxpayer is paying the tuition? Well technically when the taxpayer pays his or her taxes it becomes property of the state and the state decides how to spend it. So it's not costing anyone anything since the state already has the money. So what happens when you fall short? We just raise the taxes. Well, it appears you have it covered. One more question! Who are the taxpayers? Are they people who are working two maybe three jobs to keep food on the table for their family, and keep them sheltered, clothed, and healthy? Yes. So your giving free tuition money to students and taking the money from people that struggle and will stay struggling after these students graduate, and find a high-paying job? Well, that is just the way it works. Does this sound fair?

Mike Johnson

It's always amazing to me that left wing politicians think everything is about money. Throwing money at the problem of NM being last in education by giving everyone free college tuition is not only ignorant of why NM is last, but it will not work. However, political special interests will be rewarded, and the left wing politicians will be re-elected, and NM will still be last......

Khal Spencer


A huge proportion of our high school students are churned out unable to qualify for college level classes. We need to fix that first, or we are just throwing good money after bad.

Mike Johnson

Indeed Khal, maybe they should look at the Freshman class failure rates at UNM, NMSU, etc. for some insights into what will just happen more frequently. 4 Year graduate rates are also instructive, but most all of those who get the free tuition will not make it past the first year due to the poor underlying educational systems here.

Anita McGinnis


Khal Spencer

I had this conversation with a professor in the SUNY system recently. Opined that throwing more money at colleges without fixing K-12 is like putting a roof on a house before it has a foundation.

Anita McGinnis


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