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I’m a little late to this story, but it’s worth it.

The state of New Mexico has announced the most comprehensive free community college program in the country. It’s better than I had dared to hope for. I hope it takes off.

Most free community college programs come with income caps: if your family’s adjusted gross income is over x, then you aren’t eligible. The idea is to direct resources where they’re most needed, though one might also wonder if the idea is to deter participation by requiring onerous paperwork for eligibility.

Most programs are also “last-dollar” programs. That means they fill in gaps that aren’t otherwise filled by Pell or other dollars. In effect, one grant reduces another; the student can only get so far. The idea is to save state resources, though, again, at the cost of considerable administrative overhead.

Some programs also restrict themselves to certain age groups of students, whether those are new high school grads or people over 25. Alternately, some require students to attend full-time, usually defined as 12 credits per semester.

Each of those exclusions dilutes the effectiveness of a given program. By going last dollar, the impact of private scholarships is blunted, and living expenses still often go unaddressed. Any income cap creates immediate resentment among those just over the cap. Ruling out part-time students often means ruling out students who have to work full-time for pay. And age restrictions are blunt instruments that often punish people for having complicated lives.

New Mexico’s program rejects all of those. It requires state residency for eligibility, but beyond that, it appears to be wide-open. It doesn’t have income caps, so students don’t have to prove (or wonder if) they’re eligible with tax forms. That’s a big deal for students who are estranged from their parents, for undocumented students, for students from large families and for students whose parents are self-employed and/or have variable income from year to year. (I’ve been told that the kind of estrangement that sabotages students is much more common for LGBTQ+ students; although the program doesn’t ask students to identify, it will probably be of particular benefit to those whose families have rejected them. That’s a very big deal.) Politically, it insulates the program from the corrosive resentment of people who make “too much” for eligibility but still believe they could really use the help.

It’s also a first-dollar program, so private scholarships and Pell Grants can layer on top of the tuition grant. That allows students to devote those resources to food, rent, transportation, and books. Students whose basic material needs are secured—even if only at a modest level—are much more able to focus on their academic work. We know that some students even help support their families while they’re in school; having some resources to do that can mean the difference between working part-time and working full-time. The former is much more compatible with academic success over time than the latter.

It even allows for part-time attendance—at least six credits per semester, as opposed to 12—and it doesn’t discriminate by age. I couldn’t find information on students who already hold other degrees—the career changer who comes back for retraining—but this is still remarkably comprehensive compared to what most other states are doing.

If it’s able to sustain the funding through the next recession, I predict that New Mexico will see tremendous economic benefit over the long term. A more educated citizenry and workforce leads to all manner of positive social outcomes. My Inside Higher Ed colleague John Warner likes to say that higher education should be seen, and funded, as infrastructure; it’s part of what allows the rest of the economy and society to function, just like roads do. New Mexico is starting to treat it that way. Here’s hoping other states follow.

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