While the past 11 months have been challenging in ways many of us could not have imagined, the story of New Mexico is always one marked by resilience and perseverance. As the first hints of spring start to encourage hope and optimism, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislators are contemplating the complexities of a post-COVID-19 world.

As we endeavor to lift up our communities, strengthen economic development and diversification, and encourage innovation, higher education institutions in New Mexico will not just be partners, but drivers in those efforts. The Opportunity Scholarship is an important and valuable part of that endeavor.

As president of Northern New Mexico College, I have witnessed firsthand how increasing access to higher education can be transformative for the communities we serve. As my counterparts at colleges and universities across our state can also attest, students who are supported succeed. Ensuring students do not have to worry about how they will afford a degree or choose between education and other financial needs is a key part of this support.

The true cost of attaining a degree goes beyond tuition and fees, and can include expenses such as books, technology, child care and transportation. With its “middle dollar” approach, the Opportunity Scholarship promotes equity by offering support after lottery scholarships and other state aid is distributed, but before Pell grants are awarded, so students can put federal dollars to use meeting other crucial needs.

The Opportunity Scholarship as articulated in Senate Bill 135 will help New Mexico renew the 20th-century social contract for a 21st-century world: that public education prepares citizens for family-sustaining jobs, and that taxpayer support of education brings a return on investment for communities. In the past, a high school diploma was sufficient to access a living wage and rewarding career. A renowned Georgetown University study projected that roughly two-thirds of jobs in this decade will require some type of higher-education credential.

To achieve that result in New Mexico, we need to rejuvenate college pathways for high school graduates, adult learners, trades professionals and more. Put simply, we need a New Mexico higher education renaissance.

I supported Lujan Grisham’s vision of providing tuition-free college for all New Mexicans when she first announced the Opportunity Scholarship two years ago, and I support her vision today, with a renewed urgency brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. As Senate Bill 135 works its way through the Legislature, I am confident our leaders will give this program the serious thought and consideration it deserves.

Even in the midst of the greatest challenges we face together as New Mexicans, I am confident our best days are ahead of us. Let us work together as a state to cultivate robust pathways to — and through — higher education, for all New Mexicans who want them. The renaissance is within our reach, and the Opportunity Scholarship is a critical step toward that vision.

Rick Bailey is president of Northern New Mexico College.

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