The governor’s plan to increase access to higher education in New Mexico is welcome news to the local branch campus.
Last week, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, a “last-dollar” program that would cover the cost of tuition and fees not paid for by federal grants or the New Mexico Lottery Scholarship.
Those funding sources typically leaves an unpaid tuition gap between 25 and 40 percent for college and university students, depending on the student and institution, according to a press release from the governor’s office.
Dr. Alice Letteney, the chancellor of The University of New Mexico-Valencia campus, said she was thrilled with the news.
“We are thankful this includes part-time and returning students, with six or more credit hours,” Letteney said. “I think it was very smart of the governor and Kate O’Neill to build on the lottery scholarship.”
O’Neill, the former UNM-Taos branch director, was confirmed at the cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Higher Education Department earlier this year.
Letteney said with the local economic boom and job availability, UNM-Valencia is seeing an increase in part-time students and a small decline in adults returning to college.
“With more jobs available, they are taking fewer credits,” she said.
According to the press release, the program will benefit an estimated 55,000 students in fall 2020 if approved.
The governor’s New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship proposal will go before the Legislature during its 2020 session, a 30-day session dedicated to the state budget.
If funding is approved, it would make New Mexico the second state in the country to provide full-tuition coverage to its residents after New York.
The Opportunity Scholarship will also cover tuition and fees at two-year community colleges, making it the 21st state to provide full, two-year tuition coverage at community colleges.
In-state residents of New Mexico with a high school diploma or high school equivalency will be eligible for the scholarship with a maintained minimum GPA. Students will be able to apply for and access the scholarship after enrolling in a public, post-secondary institution.
Letteney said during Lujan Grisham’s announcement of the program at the 2019 New Mexico Higher Education Summit at Central New Mexico Community College she made an excellent case for an increase to funding higher education.
“The state and Legislature has increased funding for K-12, but higher education has lost funding by percentage in the last 10 years,” Letteney said. “It has decreased from 15 to 12 percent.
“Investment in higher education is a huge opportunity. If we don’t have an educated public and skilled workforce, we won’t draw businesses and individuals here.”
At the summit, Lujan Grisham called the program “an absolute game-changer for New Mexico,” according to the press release. “Higher education in this state, a victim of the recession, has been starved in recent years. We are pivoting to a robust reinvestment in higher learning — specifically and directly in our students.
“By covering the last dollar of tuition and fees, by making college significantly more accessible to New Mexicans of every income, of every background, of every age, we are putting students first. We are creating meaningful opportunity for all.”
The governor said in the short term, better enrollment and student success is anticipated, followed by long-term improved economic growth, outcomes for workers, families and parents, and a better trained and better compensated workforce.
By covering tuition and fees for part-time and returning adult students, Letteney said the scholarship could only boost access to higher education for UNM-Valencia and the university as a whole.
“Something to think about, is that with increased access and enrollment, there will be more need for funding for student support like tutoring, advisory and counseling,” she said. “Retention is the next issue after access. “I’m sure the Legislature understands that by putting more funding into access, we need to continue to fund support.”
The Higher Education Department, in coordination with the Public Education Department, will work with school districts and individual public schools across the state to boost federal aid applications to help make the Opportunity Scholarship sustainable for every New Mexican student, the press release read.
“This is the most exciting day in my 25-year career in New Mexico higher education,” said O’Neill, according to the press release. “That’s because students are the beneficiaries of this incredible proposal. Through this program, with the support of the Legislature, we are making a meaningful investment in our students.”
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.