New Mexico walks back 'free' college tuition promise, can no longer afford it

The governor of New Mexico announced a plan in 2019 to make college tuition free using the profits from oil.

Now the state can’t afford to pay the original plan as oil prices have plummeted amid the pandemic.

New Mexico Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s plan for free college tuition has been put on hold due to a decrease in oil profits. 

The New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, announced in 2019 by Grisham, would “provide for 100 percent of undergraduate tuition and fees at New Mexico institutions of higher education for eligible in-state resident students.” The scholarship was set to launch for the fall 2020 semester and impact as many as 55,000 students in the state.

“Speaking at the 2019 New Mexico Higher Education Summit at Central New Mexico Community College, Gov. Lujan Grisham announced plans for the new scholarship program that would impact an estimated 55,000 New Mexico students across the state’s 29 public institutions of higher education for the fall 2020 semester, a population that includes recent high school graduates, students who have earned a high school diploma equivalent such as a GED and returning adult learners.”

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Grisham’s plan ended up being downsized after pushback from legislators, ultimately changing the scholarship to pay only for two-year colleges. Although New Mexico already provides other scholarships that help pay for college tuition, the revamped Opportunity Scholarship would focus on community colleges and associates degrees, according to NBC News. Now, even “free” two-year college could be up in the air, with the state legislature set to decide the future of the program during its 2021 legislative session, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported.

Plans to use oil profits to pay for the Opportunity Scholarship are now on hold, however, due to the decrease in oil prices. The pandemic, which resulted in record low oil prices, is now forcing New Mexico to reanalyze its state budget.

The oil industry in New Mexico makes up almost 40 percent of the state’s revenue and was already affecting the budget in spring 2020. 

“I’ve just never seen anything like it. And quite frankly, I don’t know what it means,” State Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith said, according to the New Mexico Political Report.

“There’s going to have to be some very tough decisions to be made,” Smith said in April.

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Activist and attorney Jorge Galicia, a Venezuelan who fled his home country due to the economic collapse from socialism, discussed New Mexico’s situation with Campus Reform. 

“The first thing we have to note about this whole plan is that it wasn´t even necessary for it to take into effect to notice why this is such a bad idea. Financing huge social programs with taxpayers’ money (or in this case, oil revenue money) might work for some time, but inevitably the state will run out of money at some point making it impossible to maintain the funding for these ambitious programs,” he said. 

“Imagine what would have happened if the program proposed had been actually enacted before the COVID crisis. What would have the State of New Mexico done to keep the promises made to the beneficiaries of the program?”

Galicia explains that this exact situation happened in Venezuela, forcing him and millions of others to flee to America.

“Unfortunately this is what happened in Venezuela. After the oil industry was nationalized our government decided to put in place ambitious social programs...thanks to the new huge income the government was receiving.”

“It took less than a decade for the massive financial problems to appear thanks to a drop of the oil prices. Inflation, inability to pay foreign debt, and loss of trust from investors was part of the horrible economic consequences we suffered in the 80s and beyond,” Galicia said.

Galicia also emphasized the need for America to decrease public spending. He stated that the U.S. needs to take these issues more seriously before America suffers an economic collapse like Venezuela.

“Financial irresponsibility was one of many key issues that drove Venezuela into the current economic and political calamity and America needs to take its public finances more seriously if this beautiful nation wants to avoid a future devastating crisis,” he added.

The news of New Mexico comes as former Vice President Joe Biden has vowed to push for “free” college. Biden’s website states that students will have free college for two-year degrees, and free tuition for families making under $125,000.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @mn_turn