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How New Mexico Leads the Way in Accessible College

In a country with rising college tuition rates, one where nearly every student takes on loans to attend school, New Mexico's Opportunity Scholarship is a breath of fresh air. New Mexico offers subsidized college tuition for every New Mexico resident completing their first Associate's or Bachelor's degree.

As of 2023, the average federal student loan debt is $37,338, and there are over 40 million Americans in federal student loan debt. With federal student loan payments resuming for the first time in three years and the Biden administration launching the SAVE repayment plan, the American public is once again examining free college programs. Many states have begun implementing subsidized college tuition programs for two-year or four-year degrees.

There are currently 22 states with subsidized college programs for two-year degrees and an additional nine states with subsidized college programs for both two-year and four-year degrees. Most of these programs are need-based, which still benefits the majority of college students, who would otherwise need to take out loans and work full-time jobs alongside a full load of classes in order to obtain a bachelor’s degree.

New Mexico’s Opportunity Scholarship is currently the most inclusive subsidized college program in the United States. It’s the only program that pays for a four-year degree without an income cap, meaning all students have the opportunity to receive a college degree without taking out loans. All New Mexico residents enrolled in their first two-year or four-year degree-granting program are eligible for New Mexico Opportunity. The scholarship covers up to 160 attempted credits, which typically enables an entire bachelor’s degree.

Thirty-one states have implemented subsidized college tuition programs, and many are not high-income states. For example, New Mexico and Louisiana are in the top three states with the highest poverty rates in the country. Both have four-year subsidized tuition programs. In fact, out of the ten states with the highest poverty rates, seven have a subsidized college tuition program.

If we move beyond superficial appearances, there seems to be bipartisan support for subsidized college tuition programs. While free college is known as a Democratic policy issue, 10 of the 31 states with subsidized programs are primarily Republican. Evidently, not all Republicans agree with the Conservative argument: “I don’t want my taxes to pay for someone else’s college.” 

At the University of New Mexico, enrollment increased by 3.4% from fall 2021 to fall 2022, following the implementation of the Opportunity Scholarship. Many students who were previously attending schools outside of New Mexico moved back to enroll in a state university.

The Opportunity Scholarship appeals to students around the United States, not just within New Mexico. Some students move to New Mexico with the goal of achieving residency in the state for the second half of their Bachelor's degree. They often make the financial decision at eighteen years old to relocate in order to pay less for a college education.

If college enrollment continues to rise as a result of the Opportunity Scholarship granting free tuition, New Mexico could serve as a model for other states looking to implement their own subsidized college programs.

Unfortunately, a subsidized college tuition program might not be implemented on a federal level anytime soon. In 2022, President Biden proposed free community college nationwide as part of his Build Back Better Plan, but that got shut down. If states’ enrollment in public colleges increases, there might be a chance for some federally subsidized college tuition programs.

New Mexico’s Opportunity Scholarship could be a model for other states as they move toward more accessible education. With the steadily rising cost of tuition and attendance nationwide, postsecondary education is a luxury. Subsidized tuition programs make that education significantly more accessible for all.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.

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