By Margaret Montoya, Albuquerque Journal
Oct. 7, 2019

We applaud and support Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s proposal to use the budget surplus to pay college tuition costs for all N.M. residents. Using a relatively modest amount of our state’s fiscal capital to invest in the human capital of our youth will bring us dividends far into the future. This is both bold and prudent. Kudos, Gov. MLG.

We are a group of progressive educators from different backgrounds and disciplines. We have been involved in opening doors for underrepresented students, developing academic success programs, mentoring students and feeling the pride and joy that comes from seeing students succeed despite high barriers and go on to provide leadership for New Mexico. The governor’s big idea can be bigger and bolder.

Conservative forces predictably argue we can’t afford this program, but this plan has a modest price tag in the range of $25 million to $35 million for 55,000 students. A carefully designed program will not exacerbate and compound other problems, such as high levels of racial stratification and economic inequality. According to the 2019 N.M. Kids Count report, 20% of Hispanic families and 29% of Native American families live in poverty compared to 7.5% of white families. Moreover, in 2016 New Mexico had higher income inequality than 38 other states; inequality correlates with higher unemployment, lower education achievement, worse health outcomes, greater parental stress, etc.

To effectively address New Mexico’s interlocking problems, this free-tuition idea can avoid regrettable results if we learn from the Yazzie-Martinez litigation and the Lottery Scholarship outcome data.

Yazzie-Martinez established that New Mexico has under-performing schools, which impede students from graduating with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in K-12 and post-secondary studies. We urge a holistic approach, one that meets the students’ intersectional needs by providing racially, ethnically, tribally, linguistically and culturally appropriate curricula and academic support programs to bolster their academic readiness and performance.

The Lottery Scholarship outcomes warn that free college tuition will disproportionately benefit families with the highest income. According to Voices for Children, one in three Lottery Scholarship dollars go to first-time scholarship recipients with family incomes above $90,000; that is the top 15% income group.

Postsecondary attainment is not a magic bullet, but it is an important factor in economic mobility. New Mexico’s economic mobility ranks very low compared to other states, especially for indigenous communities. However, data show UNM has moderate success, i.e., its success rates are typical for schools in the Mountain West, for moving low-income students into higher-income levels. According to 2017 data, 19% of UNM students moved up two or more income quintiles.

Harvard economist David Deming concludes that the design of such plans matters, positing that the goal should be college completion with a focus on rural and first-generation college students, robust academic support, and stable funding with prudent regulation. As the Legislature moves forward, it can draw on the expertise of its educators, school teachers, community college and university professors, and community activists who have long been working to create educational success for N.M. students. One promising funding model is called the “first-dollar approach,” which leverages federal funds like Pell Grants to help families meet full costs. Such an approach uses state money to cover tuition first so that other financial aid can cover the 52% of college costs beyond tuition and fees.

We are eager to welcome and mentor those students who are presently excluded from the benefits of higher education because of tuition and related expenses. Increasing the number of well-educated workers, leaders, parents and citizens is the best investment New Mexico can make with its budget surplus.

Margaret Montoya is a professor emerita of law, visiting professor, UNM HSC Department Of Family & Community Medicine. This op-ed is also signed by Nancy López, professor of sociology, director of the Institute for the Study of “Race” and Social Justice; Marc-Tizoc González, law professor; Kiran Katira, director of the Community Engagement Center; Lisa Cacari Stone, associate professor of Health and Social Policy and TREE Center director; Dr. Brenda Pereda, associate professor of medicine, Department of ObGyn and assistant dean for Diversity and Inclusion; and Christine Zuni Cruz, Regents’ professor of law.