Matías Fontenla, professor of economics at the University of New Mexico (UNM) in the United States, dropped the reticence for which his academic subject is famous when answering what he thought of New Mexico’s decision to provide college and university students with free tuition for the first two years of their education in the state’s community colleges, colleges and universities.
“It’s a gamechanger. It’s fantastic. It’s the real deal!” he said before adding, “You can quote me on that.”
The Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA), signed into law last month by (Democrat) Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, is the most ambitious such programme in the United States – and comes on the heels of President Joe Biden having to abandon hope of passing a similar initiative that would apply nationwide because of opposition from both Congressional Republicans and Democratic senators Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona).
The OSA builds on an existing programme – the New Mexico Legislative Lottery Scholarship (NMLLS) – that, similar to those in other states, saw New Mexico offer scholarships to the poorest of its residents.
With a poverty rate of 18.5% in 2020, New Mexico is the nation’s third poorest state, after Louisiana and Mississippi. New Mexico’s population is 49% Hispanic and 8.6% Native American, with both groups being disproportionately represented among the state’s poorest residents.
The OSA fixes a problem with the NMLLS, which covered approximately 80% of the poorest students’ tuition using money from the state’s lotteries and authorised gambling. Tuition at UNM is, for example, US$8,160 per year.
“They’re so poor,” says Fontenla, “that even when we covered most of their tuition [under the NMLLS] that was not enough. They still need to cover the cost of living, their rent, their food. But now the state of New Mexico will pay 100% of their tuition.”