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Governor signs free college bill, expands coverage

March 4, 2022 GMT

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s governor signed a bill into law Friday that makes it even che aper for even more state residents to attend universities and community colleges.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has championed the Opportunity Scholarship program to help non-traditional students pursue a degree part-time or finish a degree after taking time away from college. Backing from state Legislators and a windfall of state revenues are allowing her to fully fund the program for the first time.

While the existing Lottery Scholarship covers tuition for recent high school graduates in the state, the Opportunity Scholarship also covers fees. It’s also designed to allow federal awards of between $500 and $6,000 per year to go directly to low-income students to spend as they choose, offsetting additional costs like books and rent.

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“With the Opportunity Scholarship Act, New Mexico has made history and set a national example of how states can break down barriers for students everywhere,” Higher Education Department Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez said.

High school seniors graduating this spring will be eligible for both scholarship programs, according to state and university officials familiar with both of them.

Lujan Grisham signed the bill at Western New Mexico University in Silver City.

Funding for the measure is possible thanks to record-high state revenues, as well as one-time federal pandemic relief money. Most of the new scholarship program doesn’t have a permanent funding source and would need new authorization from the Legislature next year.

State officials are still developing rules on which fees will be covered, according to Mexico Higher Education Department spokeswoman Stephanie Montoya, but there is a preliminary guide with details on the agency’s website. Priority would likely go toward fees required to take a class, like a lab fee, Montoya said.

“If it’s going to pay for fees other than tuition, I think that’s huge because I have a son who’s going to be a freshman at (New Mexico State University). And we’ve signed up for orientation, orientation is $175. We signed up to apply for the school. That’s another fee right there,” said Joe Teran of Las Cruces High School. He helps students through the logistics of college and financial aid applications.

Teran and other high school counselors are rushing to educate students on the changes as the final rules are being developed and students are making decisions on which colleges they will attend this fall.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.