New Mexico Passes ‘Groundbreaking’ Free College Bill

The New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship Act covers career training certificates, associate degrees, and bachelor’s degrees at public or Tribal colleges and universities.

February 21, 2022 · Updated on February 23, 2022

Edited by Alex Pasquariello
New Mexico Passes ‘Groundbreaking’ Free College Bill
Higher Ed Policy
Photo by Bloomberg / Contributor / Bloomberg / Getty Images

  • Up to 35,000 New Mexicans would be able to go to college for free starting this fall.
  • The bill was championed by Democratic Gov. Lujan Grisham.
  • Approximately $75 million from the state budget will be set aside for implementation.

New Mexico is set to be the latest state with a sweeping tuition-free college program.

The New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship Act passed the state legislature Feb. 16 and is now on the desk of Gov. Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who championed the bill. It expands the state's existing college tuition fund to all students and degree types attending an in-state public or Tribal college and university. The state's scholarship programs were previously restricted to recent high school students and those seeking an associate degree from a community college.

Up to 35,000 New Mexicans would be able to go to college for free starting this fall, Grisham said. They will enjoy expanded access to career training certificates, associate degrees, and bachelor's degrees, according to the New Mexico Higher Education Department.

"Not only does this program provide opportunities to build brighter futures, it also helps our state build capacity in high-need fields like teaching, medicine, and the trades," Grisham said in a statement.

Previously, only select students could benefit from the state's tuition programs. New Mexico's Opportunity Scholarship only applied to community colleges and would only cover the remaining tuition after all other government aid options had been applied. The Legislative Lottery Scholarship only applied to new high school graduates seeking an associate or bachelor's degree.

Together, those two programs served approximately 17,600 students in the fall semester, according to the New Mexico Higher Education Department.

The soon-to-be wider-reaching program will merge with the existing scholarships to create one program. And unlike the previous Opportunity Scholarship, the new program will allow students to gain both state and federal aid. That means Pell Grant-eligible students will be able to use Pell Grant funds for things like textbooks and other school expenses.

The General Appropriations Act directs $75 million to this new program.

To qualify for the new Opportunity Scholarship, according to the bill's text, a student must:

  • Be enrolled in 6-18 credit hours per semester
  • Maintain a GPA of at least 2.5
  • Be a New Mexico resident
  • Not have already earned a degree or certificate through the scholarship fund

The Opportunity Scholarship Act progressed through the New Mexico legislature with widespread support. It passed the state Senate 30-6 and passed the House of Representatives 51-17.

"Expanding free college means no New Mexican has to view cost as an obstacle to higher education," Stephanie Rodriguez, cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Higher Education Department, wrote in January. "We know that when we invest in our citizens, they build fulfilling lives, happier and healthier families, and more stable communities. When people can go to school, pursue meaningful careers and contribute to the same communities where they were born and raised, we all benefit."

New Mexico is one of 18 states in the U.S. with a statewide tuition-free program, according to the Campaign for Free College Tuition.

After free community college failed at the federal level, experts expected states to take up the issue and pass their own tuition-free college plans. Maine recently introduced a temporary plan that only applies to community colleges. Michigan and Minnesota have also recently enacted limited grant programs for select students or degree programs.

New Mexico's program is more far-reaching than these other plans. The Campaign for Free College Tuition called the plan "groundbreaking" and a "monumental victory" for the state.