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New Mexico has one of the most generous 'free tuition' programs, but there are limits


New Mexico is the latest state getting headlines for offering free tuition. A third of U.S. states already offer it in some form, and it means different things in different places. New Mexico's benefits are now among the nation's most generous, but there are limits, as Alice Fordham of member station KUNM in Albuquerque reports.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The celebration when Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed free tuition into law included a mariachi band from Western New Mexico University.


MICHELLE LUJAN GRISHAM: New Mexico is the first state in the nation to have this as part of their education platform.

FORDHAM: It's part of a slew of measures designed to increase enrollment at universities and revitalize New Mexico's workforce, which lacks skills. There's a severe shortage of professionals like teachers and nurses here. Lujan Grisham is part of a movement sometimes called College Promise. Eddy Conroy is an analyst at the New America Foundation who's advocated for free tuition.

EDDY CONROY: These guarantees come in a bunch of different forms. We're up to about 20 states that have some form of state-level program.

FORDHAM: In terms of the scope of who it covers and what it covers, New Mexico's initiative does go further than most.

CONROY: New Mexico's program is one of the most generous, if not the most generous, Promise program that we've seen instituted so far.

FORDHAM: But state lawmaker Larry R. Scott points out one big catch. The free tuition is only fully funded for one year.

LARRY R SCOTT: If we were looking for an effective program, that one-year commitment to the project was not really the appropriate course of action.

FORDHAM: The law Governor Lujan Grisham signed means most of the $75 million funding free tuition comes from federal pandemic relief.

SCOTT: If we're going to do this, we probably should have committed at least a few years of resources to it to see how efficient the program was and whether it was going to be effective.

FORDHAM: The expectation is that the scholarship will be renewed next year. An oil and gas boom here means the state will end this year with a projected $2.5 billion surplus. But Scott says oil and gas busts happen, too.

SCOTT: We've gone from being flush with money to not having enough to fund K-12 education.

FORDHAM: Just five years ago, New Mexico had to dip into education funding to balance the state budget. But even a year's free tuition means a lot to someone like Itzayana Banda. She couldn't afford to stay in school even when her favorite teacher tried to encourage her.

ITZAYANA BANDA: But no, it got to the point where I was like, no, I need to stop. It's either, like, I have money for rent, for gas, for other things, or it's I finish my education.

FORDHAM: Banda now has another option and clearly misses studying to be a teacher at Central New Mexico Community College.

BANDA: My favorite class - it was math for teachers. And they would show us there how we could show the students how to count, how to capture their attention.

FORDHAM: New Mexico residents can apply the tuition assistance to the cost of bachelor's degrees, vocational certificates and other qualifications. Emily Wildau, an analyst for New Mexico Voices for Children, says publicly funded tuition pays dividends long-term.

EMILY WILDAU: Because as it trains more and more people, that's an investment in our economy so we have a better-educated workforce. And that will help us attract new industries and create better-paying jobs.

FORDHAM: If oil and gas do end up funding free tuition longer-term in New Mexico, Wildau hopes the result will be a workforce that's less dependent on a single industry for prosperity. For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Santa Fe.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "CIRRUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.