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New Mexico Proposes Free Tuition For All State Colleges


The governor of New Mexico today announced a plan to make all state colleges tuition-free. This plan would apply to all students in the state regardless of family income. NPR's Elissa Nadworny covers education and joins us now. Hi, there.


SHAPIRO: Tell us more about the governor's proposal.

NADWORNY: So she's calling it the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship. And it would essentially make the state's two and four-year public schools tuition-free for residents with a high school diploma or an equivalent. And it's important to remember that this is just a proposal. So to actually happen, it still needs to pass and get funded by the state legislature. And both chambers of the state government in New Mexico are controlled by Democrats.

And of course, there's still the issue of paying for it. So the governor estimates it'll cost between $25 to $35 million per year. And she's suggesting that the money will come from the state general fund, which has seen a big boost from recent oil production revenues.

SHAPIRO: How many students would be affected by this?

NADWORNY: So the governor estimates about 55,000 students per year. And in New Mexico, Hispanic students make up just about half of all college students in the state. And the state also has a large portion of students who come from low-income families. So this would potentially have a large impact on those students.

SHAPIRO: It sounds like a really ambitious plan. How does it compare to what we're seeing in other states?

NADWORNY: Yeah, so about 20 states offer some sort of free college program. So that term can mean all sorts of things. But it's interesting to see that a lot of this movement on this idea of free college, it's happening at the state level. And that's because there hasn't been a big push from the federal government despite proposals that we're seeing from Democratic presidential candidates like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders.

Most of what we see around the country is free tuition at community colleges. So those are the two-year schools. And New Mexico, they want to make tuition free for their four-year publics, too. So if that happens, they'd actually be just the second state to do something for bachelor's degree students.

SHAPIRO: I know that you and the rest of the NPR Ed team have done some reporting on free college programs. How well do they work?

NADWORNY: Yeah, so that's a tricky question. In some places, we're still waiting to see if free tuition actually boosts graduation rates. So it's not just are more students going to college, but also are they getting the degree. One thing researchers have found, particularly for low-income students, is just covering tuition isn't enough. So here's Wil Del Pilar. He's the vice president of higher education at The Education Trust.

WIL DEL PILAR: Students show up to community colleges believing that they are going to get free tuition, free college. And what they realize is they're all of these other expenses. And so students end up working. If you're a low-income student and you're working, you're not studying. You're not maybe taking a full-course load.

NADWORNY: So like he's saying, there's lots of other fees related to going to college - housing, transportation, childcare. You know, more than 4 million students are raising kids while going to school. So it's things like that. And there is also restrictions that have been put in place by these programs. So you'll have to attend full-time in some cases, and that can be really tricky. You also can't take a semester off here and there to work. So...

SHAPIRO: Tell us about the pushback. What's the argument against a program like this?

NADWORNY: Well, the pushback is that this will serve all students. So this is - no matter your income, all students will be covered. And so that means wealthier kids whose families could pay, they'll go to college for free. And others say that opening college for free will push kids to go to college instead of entering the workforce. So I talked with Sara Goldrick-Rab, who studies the cost of higher education at Temple University, and she says maybe we're being a little too harsh.

SARA GOLDRICK-RAB: We're nitpicking a program that makes a real effort to rethink an approach that has failed for 50 years.

NADWORNY: So she's pointing out that the rate of college participation in New Mexico for low-income families is just 20%. So a program like this would increase that number.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Elissa Nadworny.

Thanks a lot.

NADWORNY: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.