NM’s free college program, the Opportunity Scholarship, helps thousands

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High school senior Cruz Davis-Martinez speaks with fellow students at the New Mexico School for the Arts on Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Santa Fe, NM

SANTA FE – Even after failing a test that set her back a semester, Maribel Rodriguez will be heading back to nursing school this fall with a generous new state scholarship that abandons eligibility criteria to help more working adults get a college degree.

New Mexico is expanding its “Opportunity Scholarship,” which has already paid for Rodriguez’s tuition and allowed her to apply federal grants toward living expenses like gas and groceries. She’s reapplying to the nursing program and hopes to finish her degree without racking up debt that could hurt her husband and three children.

“I didn’t think a whole lot of opportunities were really out there for me at my age,” said Rodriguez, 37, of Lovington, New Mexico, who left college at 19 in part because she couldn’t afford rent. “Even though if we missed it whenever we were younger there’s still hope for us.”

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Many states – including New Mexico – have for years offered free tuition programs for four-year degrees to residents, but the programs had restrictions, limiting participation to recent high school graduates and requiring that they attend school full-time.

This undated photo shows Maribel Rodriguez, 37, of Lovington, New Mexico.  Rodriguez will be heading back to nursing school this fall with a generous new state scholarship that abandons eligibility criteria to help more working adults get a college degree.

Supporters of those restrictions say they encourage students to complete their degree and narrow the number of students who participate, reducing costs. But critics argue they create too many hurdles for students to succeed, especially those who are low-income and struggling to work, pay rent and raise a family.

New Mexico’s revamped program provides students with more flexibility, including attending college part-time and allowing them to use federal grants for personal expenses. There’s no requirement to finish in a set number of years.

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