ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In one of the boldest state-led efforts to expand access to higher education, New Mexico is unveiling a plan Wednesday to make tuition at its public colleges and universities free for all state residents, regardless of family income.
The move comes as many American families grapple with the rising cost of higher education and as discussions about free public college gain momentum in state legislatures and on the presidential debate stage. Nearly half of the states, including New York, Oregon and Tennessee, have guaranteed free two- or four-year public college to some students. But the New Mexico proposal goes further, promising four years of tuition even to students whose families can afford to pay the sticker price.
The program, which is expected to be formally announced by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday and still requires legislative approval, would apply to all 29 of the state’s two- and four-year public institutions. Long one of the poorest states in the country, New Mexico plans to use climbing revenues from oil production to pay for much of the costs.
Some education experts, presidential candidates and policymakers consider universal free college to be a squandering of scarce public dollars, which might be better spent offering more support to the neediest students.
But others say college costs have become too overwhelming and hail the many drives toward free tuition.
“I think we’re at a watershed moment,” said Caitlin Zaloom, a cultural anthropologist at New York University who has researched the impact of college costs on families. “It used to be that a high school degree could allow a young adult to enter into the middle class. We are no longer in that situation. We don’t ask people to pay for fifth grade and we also should not ask people to pay for sophomore year.”
By some measures, the tuition initiative will be the most ambitious in a growing national movement. College costs and student debt have emerged as major issues in the Democratic presidential primary, with two of the leading contenders for the nomination — Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — promising to make all public colleges and universities free. Former Vice President Joe Biden has a more limited proposal to eliminate community college tuition.
So far, states, not the federal government, have led the way — sometimes out of a hope that a more educated workforce would attract businesses and improve local economies. As of 2018, 17 states had programs promising free college to at least some students, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most of those programs cover tuition only at two-year institutions.
New York’s Excelsior Scholarship, championed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and enacted in 2017, illustrates some of the challenges New Mexico will face. Excelsior promises free tuition at public two- and four-year colleges to families making up to $125,000, but requires that students have no gaps in their education — meaning no time away from the lecture hall to work or to care for children or aging relatives. And the scholarship money cannot be used on books, housing costs, child care or any of the other living expenses that can quickly pile up, and eventually cause many to drop out of school.
“If you call it free and don’t provide the supports for students once they get there, then you still don’t set them up for success,” said Wesley Whistle, a senior adviser on higher education at New America, a Washington think tank.
He said he favored plans such as the 21st Century Scholarship Program in Indiana, which covers the cost of public college tuition for students from low-income families, allowing them to spend their federal Pell grant funds on nontuition expenses.
Like the New York program, the New Mexico plan would cover only tuition, not living expenses, and the funds would be available only after a student drew from existing state aid programs and from federal grants.
But the New Mexico proposal does go further than New York’s Excelsior Scholarship in two regards: It is available to all students, regardless of family income, and it includes funds for adults looking to return to school at community colleges.
“This program is an absolute game changer for New Mexico,” 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.”
Officials contend that New Mexico would benefit most from a universal approach to tuition assistance. The state’s median household income is $46,744, compared with a national median of $60,336. Most college students in the state also come from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds; almost 65% of New Mexico undergraduates are among the nation’s neediest students, according to the state’s higher education department.
The new program in New Mexico would be open to recent graduates of high schools or high school equivalency programs in the state, and students must maintain a 2.5 grade point average. In contrast to other states, like Georgia, that have curbed access to public colleges by unauthorized immigrants, New Mexico would open the tuition program to all residents, regardless of immigration status.
Carmen Lopez-Wilson, the deputy secretary of New Mexico’s Higher Education Department, said the program would benefit about 55,000 students a year at an annual cost of $25 million to $35 million. She added that the state was trying to bolster its higher education system, which endured spending cuts of more than 30% per student from 2008 to 2018.
“We’re giving money directly to students,” Lopez-Wilson said. “This is the best way to begin rebuilding the infrastructure of higher education in New Mexico.”