Gov. Lujan Grisham sets sights on free college


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.