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New Mexico intensifies free college program, at least for now | Lifestyle

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From CEDAR ATTANASIO – Associated Press / Report for America

SANTA FE, NM (AP) – Even after failing a test that postponed her semester, Maribel Rodriguez will return to nursing school this fall with a generous new state scholarship that waives eligibility criteria to help more working adults get a college diploma. .

New Mexico is expanding its “Scholarship of Opportunity,” which has already paid for Rodriguez’s tuition and allowed her to apply federal grants for housing, such as gas and food. She is re-applying for a nursing care program and hopes to complete her diploma without accumulating debts that could harm her husband and three children.

“I didn’t think there were many opportunities for me at my age,” said 37-year-old Rodriguez of Lowington, New Mexico, who dropped out of college at 19 in part because she couldn’t afford to rent. “Even if we missed it when we were younger, there is still hope for us.”

Many states, including New Mexico, have for years offered residents free tuition programs for four-year diplomas, but the programs had limitations that limited recent high school graduates and required them to attend school full-time.

Proponents of these restrictions say they encourage students to get a degree and narrow the number of students involved by reducing costs. But critics say they create too many barriers for students to succeed, especially those with low incomes and difficulty working, paying rent and starting a family.

The updated New Mexico program gives students more flexibility, including attending college part-time and allows them to use federal grants at personal expense. No requirement to finish in a certain number of years.

“It opens the door for many people, especially those who enrolled in a diploma and for some reason were forced to leave,” said Katie Levin, director of financial aid at the College of Northern New Mexico in Spain.

However, Levin and other college counselors are embarrassed to promise students future funding.

Much of the $ 75 million program expansion relied on one-time federal aid in connection with the pandemic and was only allowed for one year. If funding is cut, students may find themselves without support halfway through their degree program or certificate.

Back in 2017 New Mexico has cut its other scholarship program for colleges up to only 60% of the cost of tuition due to an unexpected drop in state revenue. Government officials now say the program, the Scholarship Lottery, is now 100% solvent for at least the next four years.

The governor and legislature of the state of New Mexico hope that the expanded Opportunity Scholarship Program will be enough to reverse the state’s grim educational outcomes. In Mississippi alone, the census estimates that a smaller percentage of four-year-old diploma holders are 23%.

Since 2020, the program has benefited 10,000 state residents enrolled in experiential degree programs, including nursing.

“She checks all these boxes, very reliable, definitely stands out as a national model,” said Jessica Thompson, vice president of the left-wing think tank Institute for Access and Success in College, about the revised program.

But Thompson warns that states are often unable to promise students generous programs in the long run because their incomes are so closely linked to the vagaries of the economy.

Thompson says other states, such as Oregon, allowed generous programs for students only to cut them when budgets were poor.

In 2020, Oregon had to cut its budget and tell 1,070 low-income students that they would not receive the assistance promised to them earlier. This month, Oregon announced it was doubling its housing grant for low-income students.

New Mexico officials estimate that about 35,000 students can participate in the expanded program. But that number is likely to decline because universities across the state have already raised tuition fees, frustrating state higher education officials.

The Technical Institute of New Mexico has increased tuition fees by 9%, citing rising costs and the availability of new scholarships. Others raised the cost of tuition by about 4%.

Starting in July, universities will have to negotiate with the state on limits on the cost of tuition if they want to participate in the free tuition program. But the law did not prevent them from raising tuition fees by that date.

At least for next year, the expanded program will also make existing support for recent high school graduates even more generous, allowing them to use federal funding for personal expenses, in addition to the existing “Lottery Scholarship” that pays for their tuition.

This is good news at the School of the Arts in Santa Fe, where students discussed their plans with an employee of the University of New Mexico during a lunch break.

“Some of our parents are still repaying their college loans,” said 17-year-old Zoe MacDonald, a junior filmmaker.

Artist Cruise Davis-Martinez, 18, knows he wants a four-year degree, and compares the University of New Mexico to two schools in other states.

“Much of my career in high school, unfortunately, was spent on double credit,” Davis-Martinez said, “because I had such financial uncertainty.”

At age 15, he began traveling 40 minutes to take advantage of free college tuition paid for by his high school. The idea was to earn college loans so he could save money in college.

He now realizes that he can attend all the classes he needs without procrastination and without working so hard that it cripples his academic performance.

Under New Mexico’s new plan, he will receive more support than expected, although the exact cost of college tuition is unclear. Government officials are still writing the final rules of the program, including what fees will be covered and how much universities can raise tuition fees.

Thompson said it is important for students to be able to continue their education without the threat of debt. However, she believes the state is in one economic downturn from cutting benefits and that the federal government should fund more of these programs.

“I would be surprised if New Mexico could withstand this without, you know, constant federal involvement and participation in funding,” she said. “And I don’t think other states can follow them.”

Attanasio is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on issues that are not well covered. Watch out for Attanasio Twitter.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed without permission.

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