By Emily Wildau, MPP
Oct. 5, 2022

Link to our policy brief

We all benefit when college is affordable enough that anyone can attend, and all New Mexicans should have the opportunity to further their education and careers. College graduates become the teachers, doctors, engineers, and other professionals that serve us and our communities. In addition, access to higher education improves racial and income equity. New Mexico has done an excellent job of making college tuition affordable – even nonexistent – for many students. But the cost of college goes well beyond tuition and includes books, fees, and living expenses. So, despite our tuition-free college for many New Mexicans, students are still having to borrow money to put themselves through school.

The student debt crisis has been in the news of late thanks to President Biden’s student debt relief plan. It is a great start, but as anyone with college debt can tell you, it doesn’t go far enough. The average per-person student debt in New Mexico is just over $34,000. The president’s program will take care of $10,000 of debt for many students and graduates, cutting down the average debt by less than one-third. Fortunately, students who received federal Pells grants – effectively, students with low incomes who had to finance more of their education through debt – will be eligible for $20,000, which will go much further toward their debt burdens.

Even those who do not have college debt of their own have a stake in this issue. The state and nation’s collective college debt burden is bad for the economy. It reduces consumer spending, inhibits business growth, and hampers the housing market. As more than one in ten New Mexicans owes college debt, that represents a significant drag on our state’s economy.

While the president’s program is a federal fix, New Mexico’s lawmakers have options for leveraging this relief. The state should provide more student aid that is need-based and flexible to cover other costs beyond tuition. Despite New Mexico’s high poverty rates, only 22% of our state’s student aid is need-based, while the national average is 64%. L These days, many college students have children of their own, so lawmakers should also fully fund child care assistance, increase the state’s Child Tax Credit, and increase funding for cash assistance and other programs that help these students pay for basic living expenses while they attend school.

In the meantime, New Mexico holders of student debt need to ensure they take advantage of the president’s program. The application period begins soon (for that and other important dates, as well as other information about the program, see our policy brief here). The sooner New Mexicans can discharge their student loan debt, the sooner they can spend the money that has been going toward their monthly payments on their basic needs and at our local businesses instead.

Emily Wildau, MPP, is a research and policy analyst and KIDS COUNT coordinator for New Mexico Voices for Children.