New Mexico hopes to make all state colleges free, regardless of income

New Mexico’s governor has announced an ambitious plan to make its 29 public colleges and universities tuition-free for its residents, regardless of family income, The New York Times reports. Almost 20 states already offer free tuition to some community college students. However, New Mexico’s plan—which is expected to begin in 2020 but still must be approved by the state legislature—would make it one of the few states to offer free tuition at four-year colleges, and the only state without income-based eligibility restrictions. 

All recent high school graduates would be eligible for the New Mexico program, regardless of immigration status. Students would be required to maintain a 2.5 GPA to remain eligible for free tuition.

“This program is an absolute game-changer for New Mexico,” Governor Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “In the long run, we’ll see improved economic growth, improved outcomes for New Mexican workers and families and parents.”

Last-dollar versus first-dollar

According to Education Dive, New Mexico government officials expect 55,000 students to participate annually, at a cost of $25 million to $35 million each year. The plan’s cost is relatively low due to New Mexico’s notably low tuition rates, and because it kicks in only after all grants and scholarships are used. Such “last-dollar” programs have been criticized in the past because they don’t account for non-tuition expenses like housing, transportation, daycare, and textbooks. 

By contrast, Washington state’s plan—which focuses on assisting low- to median-income students—will cost more than $800 million in the first few years. However, it is a first-dollar program, meaning that students who qualify will receive tuition benefits in addition to their Pell Grants and any other available aid.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University, told NPR that the New Mexico program is still worthwhile. “It is money with a high ROI,” she said. “Right now they are losing talented people dropping out of college because their families are too rich to be able to qualify for the Pell grant and too poor to be able to finish college, that’s economically inefficient. You want those people to get their credentials and get out into the workforce. This program will pay for itself.”

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