The state Higher Education Department will seek a funding increase for the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship in the upcoming legislative session, as well as some changes to the program.
The department announced Monday it is seeking $22 million from the Legislature for the scholarship program, which is dedicated to students at two-year colleges, for fiscal year 2022. It would be a $5 million increase compared to last year. The department indicated the total amount could benefit up to 30,000 students.
The scholarship has helped 15,770 students with tuition and fee assistance since it was created in 2019, according to the Higher Education Department.
The agency also is seeking to change student eligibility requirements, reducing credit hours from 12 to six, in an effort to accommodate working students and encourage workforce training.
“It is vital that we continue to provide financial aid opportunities that are inclusive of New Mexicans on different educational paths, especially as we seek to rebuild our economy,” acting Higher Education Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez said in a statement. “The Opportunity Scholarship will do exactly that.”
Becky Rowley, president of Santa Fe Community College, said she was especially excited about the possibility of relaxing the requirements for part-time students. She said 75 percent of students at the college fit that category, and many of them are balancing work and family obligations while taking classes.
Thomasinia Ortiz-Gallegos, assistant vice president for student affairs at SFCC, said the college received $510,970 in scholarship funds but used only $153,000 for 250 full-time students.
“It’s something that has been helpful for our students, but broadening the base of students who are eligible for it would make it that much more appealing,” Rowley said.
The Opportunity Scholarship covers tuition and fees for students pursuing two-year degrees and certificates at any tribal college or public higher education institution in the state, regardless of when they completed high school. It can cover up to 100 percent of a student’s tuition and fees, or the remaining amount after other aid, including the long-standing lottery scholarship, is applied.
The scholarship program had a rocky start.
In 2020, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham proposed $26 million for the program, but following debate and changes in the regular session last year, legislators agreed to put $17 million into the budget for the plan. When they reconvened in June for a special session to address a steep decline in projected revenues, they cut scholarship funding to just $5 million.
Lujan Grisham restored the full amount.
Legislation regarding the Opportunity Scholarship has not yet been filed for the 2021 session.
The Higher Education Department also is proposing a $4 million pilot project to target four-year college students who lost their Legislative Lottery Scholarship and are a semester or two away from completing their degree.