Greg Romero couldn’t believe the news when he heard New Mexico would once again provide full tuition for eligible college students under the Legislative Lottery Scholarship Program.
“We were excited this year was looking like something closer to 85, maybe 90 percent of tuition with the lottery program,” Romero, president of the Associated Students of the University of New Mexico, said just hours after learning of the news Thursday.
“So it was really great to hear it would go to 100 [percent],” he said. “It fulfills its purpose — to give students a possibility at a higher education for free.”
It will be the first time since 2015 the state has offered free college tuition under the lottery scholarship program.
Funding for the program will total $63.5 million for fiscal year 2022 — a 30 percent boost from last year’s funding of $43 million. And the money will come from several sources, said Stephanie Montoya, spokeswoman for the state Higher Education Department.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appropriated $15.5 million to shore up the scholarship, while $37 million will come from projected lottery ticket sales. The rest of the money will be carried over from last year.
“This is what is needed at the tail end of a pandemic,” Higher Education Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez said in a telephone interview.
Creating access to college, she said, “is critical for economic prosperity and family sustainability and self-proficiency in New Mexico. If we provide these opportunities for New Mexicans, we are going to see New Mexico and our families thrive in this economy in this post-pandemic environment.”
Rodriguez said she and other state leaders are discussing ways to keep the scholarship at the 100 percent mark beyond next year.
Lawmakers created the lottery scholarship program in 1996, and for almost 20 years it covered 100 percent of tuition for in-state students who met eligibility requirements. But keeping pace with demand for the scholarship has been a concern for years because of increasing tuition rates, among other reasons.
Legislators began reducing the amount of the scholarship, first to cover 95 percent of tuition in 2014-15, and then 90 percent in 2015-16. Over time, that amount dropped to as low as 60 percent to 65 percent.
Of the 118,337 students who attend college in New Mexico, 24,256 receive lottery scholarship funds, according to the Higher Education Department.
Financial aid officers at two of New Mexico’s flagship colleges said they hope more students enroll now that the scholarship program is back to full coverage.
“I hope this is a turning point for students to realize that college is affordable and it truly is an option,” said Vandeen McKenzie, director of financial aid services at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.
Brian Malone, director of student financial aid at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, said full coverage also means students don’t have to rely on other financial aid programs to cover tuition. They can use other funds, which are not always tied to tuition expenses, to pay for housing, books, supplies and other fees, he said.
He also thinks full tuition will encourage more students to enroll in state collages. “Anytime you are talking about fully covering tuition or discounting tuition that is already affordable, you are removing barriers for students to attend college,” he said.
The lottery scholarship program wasn’t the only good news for college students. The New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, which benefits students who are not eligible for the lottery scholarship, such as returning adult learners and students who attend college part time, received an increase of $11 million for next year.
And the state has received $104 million in federal funds through the American Rescue Plan Act for student relief grants, Rodriguez said.
Thomasinia Ortiz-Gallegos, associate vice president for student success at Santa Fe Community College, said financial support can make all the difference in giving high school graduates a shot at attending college.
“That financial responsibility can be detrimental to a student in not even thinking about going to college,” she said.
A college degree, she said, gives those students “opportunities in the workforce. It gives them opportunities in furthering their education with a bachelor’s degree. It definitely makes them more marketable.
“It helps our community.”