By Kaitlin Mulhere
September 20, 2019

State officials in New Mexico say a plan to eliminate tuition and fees at public colleges will boost access to higher education by alleviating the financial burden of going to college.

If passed by the state legislature, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham’s proposal would be the broadest free tuition model in country: students would be eligible regardless of family income, and it would apply to all 29 public colleges in the state.

But will the program, with its estimated $35 million price tag, actually help more students in the state earn a degree?

Some research suggests that lowering prices alone won’t help improve degree attainment, especially if free tuition models simply drive up enrollments and force colleges to serve more students with the same resources.

In other words, if we want more adults to be able to earn certificates or degrees beyond high school, it will require improving both affordability and quality. It’s the second part of the equation that New Mexico’s proposal doesn’t currently address.

Most of New Mexico’s community colleges have graduation rates in the 20% range, according to the federal College Scorecard. Just under half of students had either transferred or graduated eight years after starting at Central New Mexico Community College, the state’s largest two-year institution.

And at the state’s largest four-year colleges—the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and New Mexico State University in Las Cruces — less than 20% of students graduate on time. Those numbers jump to 48% at UNM and 46% at New Mexico State when the time to earn a degree is expanded to six years.

Completion rates that low “make college a risky proposition for many students,” Joshua Goodman, an economics professor at Brandeis University who specializes in education, tweeted Wednesday.

“So the big question is, what (will New Mexico) do to improve college quality in concert with free tuition efforts,” he added.

To be fair, New Mexico isn’t alone in this struggle, though the graduation rates at the states’ public colleges are below average. Right now, only about 65% of students at public, four-year colleges nationwide graduate within six years, and 40% of students who start at a community college go on to earn a degree, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

While student surveys show that financial struggles are one of the most common reasons students drop out, that doesn’t mean lowering tuition will automatically drive graduation rates up.

In fact, a 2017 NBER paper found lowering tuition costs doesn’t lead to greater degree completion, but spending at colleges and universities does.

The findings “suggest that government programs aimed at reducing college costs will not increase degree attainment if cost reduction is achieved by reducing per-student spending,” the authors write.

Other research shows that state appropriations for higher education have long-lasting effects on students’ financial lives. Students who attended public four-year colleges during periods where states increased funding were less likely to have student debt, had higher credit scores, and were more likely to have a home mortgage by their mid-30s.

About 45% of adults in New Mexico have some formal education beyond high school, according to the Lumina Foundation. That places the state 30th in the nation for postsecondary attainment.

“When you look at the workforce needs in New Mexico, there’s no denying we need more people getting through programs all the way from certificates to PhDs,” says Kate O’Neill, the state’s secretary for higher education.

When asked whether New Mexico’s free tuition plan will actually help with that attainment, O’Neill describes the state’s plan as a three-part vision: access, retention, and graduation.

For many of the state’s students, the cost is the first challenge, O’Neill says. Even with New Mexico’s comparatively low tuition—the average at four-years is about $7,000, according to the College Board—students still typically face a funding gap between 25% and 40% of tuition, according to the state. And while the free tuition plan focuses on access, details that could help with retention, like a mentoring component or a GPA requirement, still need to be hammered out, O’Neill said. Officials plan to look to data from other states that have implemented similar programs.

This “signals a very important investment in higher education in New Mexico,” she says.

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