Debating the idea of “Free College”

Originally published in the Las Cruces Bulletin on Friday, October 18, 2019

When Governor Lujan-Grisham announced her Opportunity Scholarship proposal to help more New Mexicans complete college, it sparked dialogue not just in New Mexico, but across the country.

Currently 24 states offer some variation of “free college” in different forms, most focusing on two-year degree completion, due to its impact on equipping graduates for Grand Canyon-wide gap in the  middle- and technical-skilled careers that have hollowed out the workforce nationwide.

As most in our community know, The Bridge of Southern New Mexico has also championed the value of both high school and college completion from the very beginning in 2009. Why? 

Because it’s not just an academic issue. It’s a workforce issue. And it’s an economic issue.

We know that those who obtain college-level credentials of all types (career certifications, two-year degrees, four-year degrees, and higher) are more simply more valuable in the world of work than those who don’t have them – to employers and to themselves. 

And, as we constantly stress, ALL of these can have value, depending on what industries and careers they will be used in. 

Just one example is welders who spend months earning career certifications and can later out-earn many four-year-degree holders. But, two and four-year Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)-related degree holders out-earn practically everyone.

College disconnected from career destinations and earning power can be a terrible investment – thus the enormous $1.6 trillion student loan crisis we face as a county. This slices down to the personal level for both graduates and non-graduates of about $32,731 in debt per person. In New Mexico, it’s about two-thirds of that amount ($21,237), thanks to our commitment to keeping higher education costs low. Still, the Institute for College Access and Success estimates 54% of our state’s population is carrying this debt.

So yes, the desire to relieve our students of this financial burden is a worthy cause, since it has a direct impact on the ability to have a life after higher education. Balancing the normal elements of a budget is already challenging. Starting off with an entry salary or wage post-graduation (in the best-case scenario), while making monthly average loan payments of $351 for years, is an enormous challenge. 

Perhaps the most important parts of this proposal are the inclusion of two-year degrees and including working adults who would benefit financially from securing college credentials to would increase their earning power. 

Much of our economic woes stem from our historically low high school graduation rates. How can we meaningfully help those who failed to secure a high school diploma and/or earn a college credential be ready for the 63% of jobs in our state that will require more than high school credentials?

So the key challenge in crafting the Opportunity Scholarship legislation lies in the exact same principles that we have used to advance our Dual Credit funding argument. 

Can we realize a return on this investment for individuals, families, communities, and the state?

How will academic completion result in higher earnings, greater employability, and increased contributions to the tax base and to local economies?

When individuals have the right college-level certificates and degrees, they earn more. They spend more in their communities. They invest more in the local, state, and federal tax bases. 

New Mexico wants economically strong families, because we want to see the best possible environments for children for the long-term. Children whose families are economically secure, experience lifelong benefits.

A critical part of the framing for the Opportunity Scholarship will be to connect these investments to the abundance of opportunity here in New Mexico. We can successfully stem the “brain drain,” if we stop telling people, “there are no jobs here,” and show them the value of a variety of college credentials in our businesses and industries.

As we invest in our people, New Mexico’s True Talent, we can reap a harvest of rewards for years to come. 

We, at The Bridge, know that “the devil’s in the details.” We look forward to seeing how the Opportunity Scholarship takes shape in order to forge the greatest opportunities for the future for us all.