Here is an Idea

New Mexico's Governor Bill Richardson is using the "Rainy Day" windfall to create a fund for need-based college aid. I like the way this sidesteps the two major pitfalls in most contemporary discussions of "fixing" higher-education: 1. Centrally-controlled bureaucratic micromanagement of universities sold as "businesslike reform" and, 2. pumping money into the system directly while ignoring the systemic draining of university support through Orwellian doublespeak (when I was in New Mexico, reduction in state support was called "tuition credit," because they expected the University to increase tuition by a certain amount. Nice, eh?).

This solution mixes the idea of a market-based endowment with the market forces that are ALREADY helping us shape our universities and retain our #1 rank in the world.

Governor wants $50M for 'affordability' scholarships
Haley Wachdorf
NMBW Staff

When it comes to going to college in New Mexico, there is good news and bad news. The good news, according to Beverlee McClure, secretary of higher education for the state, is that plenty of students qualify for college entrance. The bad news is that a lot of them can't afford tuition.

"The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education publishes a state-by-state report called 'Measuring Up.' We get an A-minus in participation," McClure says. "We've made it pretty easy for people to get in to college. But we received an F in college affordability, not because tuition is too high, but because we don't have enough need-based aid in this state. We know that one of the big reasons that students don't make it to graduation is financial burdens. They work 30 to 40 hours a week and try to go to class and end up saying 'Forget it, I can't do it.'"

That problem has not gone unnoticed in Santa Fe, where officials not only want to make it easier for the state's relatively poor population to access a college education, but also to assure industries in the state that there will be a steady supply of new graduates.

Gov. Bill Richardson on Nov. 21 announced his intention to seek $50 million from the legislature to fund an endowment for the College Affordability Act, which was signed into law earlier this year but did not receive any appropriation in the 2005 legislative session. The legislation in support of the funding will be carried by Sen. Michael Sanchez, D-Valencia County.

The scholarships would provide a solely need-based scholarship for New Mexico's traditional and non-traditional students. New Mexico's most prominent state scholarship, the Lottery Success Scholarship, is only available for students who enroll in college immediately after high school graduation with a 2.5 GPA and who maintain a 12-hour course load. Those restrictions mean that people who wish to return to college later in life or who serve in the military after high school graduation are not eligible for the lottery scholarship.

A decision has not yet been made as to what will constitute financial need for a College Affordability Act scholarship, but NMHED officials say it will probably be similar to qualifying for a Pell grant, which is the federal government's best-known grant for students who need financial help. In New Mexico, 37,000 students qualify for Pell grants. The College Affordability Act scholarships would be worth up to $1,000 per semester.

McClure says the funding of the College Affordability Act is her department's first legislative priority, and she thinks the timing is right given the state's windfall from oil and gas revenues.

"This is the year to do it," she says. "Everyone is going for the big pot of money out there, and I'm aware that everyone is going after that. But if we in New Mexico really want to leave a legacy and touch lives, this is the way to do that."

If the $50 million is appropriated in the January session, NMHED officials say no more than a third of the money will be used immediately to pay for scholarships in the 2006-2007 academic year. NMHED officials say the College Affordability Scholarships might be financed from the interest generated on the principal of the endowment, as is traditional, but it is also possible that some of the money will be invested or used as leverage to gain federal money for scholarships.

John Carey, president of the Association of Commerce and Industry, says his organization had called for an expansion of lottery scholarship eligibility this year, but feels the proposed endowment would meet the same need.

"One of the drawbacks we've had in economic development is our education system," he says. "So I think the better trained and educated our workforce and our future workforce are, the better we can compete with other states."

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