Ian Martinez is hoping his part-time job at Santa Fe Community College becomes full time after he finishes his associate degrees in criminal justice and business administration.

Full-time employment at the college would make him eligible for four free credit hours at New Mexico Highlands University, where he hopes to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business administration via online courses.

Since 2018, when he graduated from Santa Fe Public Schools’ Early College Opportunities High School, Martinez has become an expert in federal, state and local scholarships and higher education grants. While he has been able to combine funding sources to cover his tuition at the community college, his path to a bachelor’s degree — like that of many young New Mexicans — is clouded with financial uncertainty.

“When I first came to college, I was worried about the money situation,” Martinez said. “I think everyone is. But if students know that they can get a free education after high school, can you imagine how much the enrollment rates would increase?”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has a plan to remove some of the financial roadblocks to higher education. On Wednesday, she announced a plan for a massive scholarship expansion for New Mexico residents attending the state’s public community colleges and universities, a move that could help eliminate tuition and fees for many who have earned a high school diploma or GED certificate.

It also could help reverse a trend of declining enrollment numbers at the state’s institutions.

The Governor’s Office estimates the program will cost between $25 million and $35 million a year in appropriations from the state’s general fund to benefit around 55,000 students across New Mexico.

During a statewide higher education summit Wednesday morning at Central New Mexico Community College, Lujan Grisham said she was “pretty confident” the Legislature — which has to approve the plan — would be on board.

“If we truly believe in the power of higher education and the potential of New Mexico students, let’s put our money where our mouth is,” Lujan Grisham said to a lecture hall full of the state’s K-12 and higher education employees.

“We mean business,” she added, “and it’s in our budget request. We want the rest of the world to know that they’re going to have to follow our example.”

Instead of paying for all tuition, the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship would cover any fees left over after a student applies for federal financial aid and the state’s Legislative Lottery Scholarship, which already covers between 60 percent and 75 percent of tuition for around 16 percent of New Mexico’s public college and university students.

Higher Education Deputy Secretary Carmen López-Wilson said the Opportunity Scholarship would have the same requirements as the lottery scholarship — eligible students would have to enroll in 15 credit hours per semester at a four-year New Mexico public university or 12 credit hours per semester at a two-year community college, and must maintain a 2.5 or greater cumulative grade-point average.

Students who use the scholarship at a four-year university must enroll within 16 months of graduation from high school or receipt of an equivalent diploma. Adult learners who graduated from high school more than 16 months before enrolling in higher education would be able to use the Opportunity Scholarship at two-year community colleges but not for a four-year degree.

State officials said the new scholarship would be rolled out alongside a push from the state Public Education Department to ensure every high school student applies for federal financial aid. According to the Higher Education Department, only 65 percent of New Mexico’s high school students fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as FAFSA, which allows those from lower-income families to access Pell Grants, providing up to $5,500 per year in federal tuition assistance.

“We’re working toward establishing benchmarks in order to increase the number of students who have successfully completed the FAFSA,” said Public Education Deputy Secretary Kara Bobroff. She founded the Native American Community Academy, a charter school in Albuquerque where every student applies to at least 10 colleges.

“What really excites me about today’s announcement is the chance to think about college for all students and not just some students,” she said.

State Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, the House Education Committee chairman and an American history teacher at Atrisco Heritage Academy High School in Albuquerque, said students who typically are discouraged by the sticker shock of college were excitedly discussing the proposal in his classroom Wednesday.

“What this will do for a lot of my students is start turning college into an expectation. In the same way heading from elementary to middle school is an expectation, going from high school to college can become an expectation,” Romero said. “From my perspective as a high school teacher, that works with 11th graders who are close to college. This will be a huge motivating factor in convincing more kids to attend.”

Officials said the Opportunity Scholarship plan signifies significant new investment in a Higher Education Department that has been depleted in recent decades. According to the Governor’s Office, the department received 17 percent of the state’s general fund at its peak in 1993 but is receiving 12 percent during the current fiscal year.

López-Wilson said the department has lost 30 percent of its funding over the past 10 years.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said he supports the concept of state-funded tuition but is concerned that recurring revenues eventually won’t be sufficient to cover the costs.

“It’s a great idea, but the devil is in the details,” he said. “If we can increase enrollment and student outcomes, then that will be positive. The big concern is $25 million per year to grow into $45 million to grow into $60 million.”

A rise in demand for scholarship dollars from the New Mexico Lottery — which for years covered 100 percent of tuition for eligible students — began creating shortfalls in the scholarship fund in recent years, prompting lawmakers to decrease the amount of tuition coverage given to each recipient.

“We don’t advertise enough,” Smith said, “but New Mexico is one of the most affordable states for higher education. If you can’t go to college here, you won’t be able to go to college anywhere else.”

For the 2019-20 academic year, tuition and fees for in-state residents are $7,556 at the University of New Mexico and $7,810 at New Mexico State University. López-Wilson said she expects the scholarship, which would start covering tuition for students during the fall 2020 semester, would increase enrollment and graduation rates by allowing students to finish school faster.

Northern New Mexico College President Rick Bailey lauded the plan, which he said could persuade more students to attend college. “We don’t compete with other colleges and universities for students,” he said. “Typically, we compete with the decision of whether or not to go to college, so the more we can break down barriers to college, the more successful we will be, not only as an institution but as a state.”

According to the Governor’s Office, 20 other states provide tuition-free community colleges, but New York is the only state to establish tuition-free universities.

“I think it’s an amazing thing,” said Zoe Callan, a junior at Native American Community Academy. “We’re opening up opportunities for so many people. …

“It’s about time New Mexico led the way,” she added. “Money is definitely something we all think about when we’re applying to college. I don’t think it will stop me from applying to other places, but it definitely will encourage me to look at the options here in New Mexico more closely.”

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