Since 1941 New Mexico license plates have featured the words: “Land of Enchantment.” With a recent proposal for free public college, New Mexico might just live up to that nickname for higher education. Today Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a proposal to make free public college tuition a reality for all students who enroll in New Mexico’s two and four-year schools, including the flagship campus of the University of New Mexico.
Governor Grisham’s proposal calls for the state to provide the “last dollars in” for a resident student after Federal and state need-based grant options are exhausted. No resident would pay resident tuition. But every student must also cover fees, room and board and all other costs of attendance. And there is a catch: resident students must maintain a 2.5 GPA or better to continue to attend college tuition free. That’s not easy in some majors, especially when starting college in programs such as Engineering, Nursing or Pharmacy, all offered at the flagship campus of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. The news coverage mentions no time limit by which the tuition assistance stops.
The University of New Mexico is already inexpensive compared to most other flagship state schools. The estimated total cost of attendance for this academic year is $22,900 for a resident, including tuition and fees of $7,600 and $38,600 for a non-resident. I have to wonder if the neediest students will lose money on a free tuition policy, unless the state plans to allow them to continue to receive state grants to help cover other costs of attendance. This university also has some of the most generous scholarship programs you will find for residents and non-residents alike. The more generous programs for non-residents help those from the western states. But a New Jersey resident who can get into Rutgers main campus in New Brunswick could be an Amigo Scholar at New Mexico and receive an award of about $17,000/year. That student would pay a lot less to go to college in New Mexico, and possibly be admitted into their Honors College.
It’s hard to beat the University of New Mexico for value, and possibly access to majors that will be in high demand at more selective state universities. In theory these scholarship programs should help the university to attract and retain better students. They might also help to reverse a trend that should have caused Governor Grisham and the state legislature some concern: from 2014 to 2018 the size of the full-time freshman class dropped from just under 3,500 students to just under 2,600. The non-resident share of the class went from 14 to 16 percent. That might not sound like much, but the senior leaders and trustees of a flagship campus would be considered that more residents had decided to steer clear.
My greater concern is retention and graduation rates. Any college, especially a flagship state university, should place student success at the top of its mission along with its service to the citizens of its state. The average freshman retention rate the university reported to US News was an appalling 78 percent, appalling given the school’s efforts to manage costs. The most recent four-year graduation rate was an equally appalling 21 percent. The five-year rate was 43 percent, 49 percent for six.
Half of the students who came to this school hoping to earn a degree never did, though some might have finished their undergraduate education elsewhere. A politician might say that costs had everything to do with this. I disagree. I feel that either the university admitted students who were inadequately prepared for college, or it did not have the support structure in place to help them, quite possibly both.
A very confident student from a cost conscious family might ignore those numbers, especially if the beauty of the Land of Enchantment holds appeal. If that student gets into the Honors College and/or develops good study skills early, s/he could get no worse than the same education s/he would receive at a state school with better numbers and stronger brand recognition, and get it at a bargain price. If s/he wants to settle in New Mexico or on the West Coast, there will be a supportive alumni community.
When I see declining enrollment, I wonder if there will enough strong prospects, resident or non-resident, who will help the university improve on their numbers with little additional demand on academic support and student services. While the state’s dollars might follow the New Mexican student to the public college of their choice, that does not mean that more dollars will be sent to each school to cover their costs. A greater concern: they might later be used to make up for cuts in Pell Grants or state aid.
Free tuition might lead more New Mexicans to take a longer look at their university system, especially the flagship. It could help reduce student debt versus other educational options outside of the state. But I am also concerned that aside from requiring the 2.5 GPA, there is no proposed time limit for free tuition, nor are their plans mentioned to invest in improved student success, or better preparation for college while the student is still in high school. The reasoning appears to be: “If the students pay no tuition, they’ll be motivated to get the 2.5 and finish their degree.” But money is not the only thing that motivates someone to complete their college education. The faculty, academic support and alumni network matter, too. It takes a village of people to become a Land of Enchantment.
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