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New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed SB 140, extending free college tuition to state residents, in March.

Courtesy of New Mexico Higher Education Department

New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham triumphantly signed Senate Bill 140 earlier this spring. Also known as the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship Act, SB 140 removes tuition as a barrier for New Mexican students attending in-state public higher educational institutions. Essentially, any New Mexican student attending any in-state tribal or public institution may have their tuition waived if they meet minimum credit hour and grade point average requirements. Though, to various degrees, other states like California, North Carolina and Texas have been in the news for considering and enacting tuition waivers for certain groups of students, the New Mexico law provides a pathway for students unrivaled by those in other states.

While it might be tempting to look at the new landscape of public higher education in New Mexico as a singular case of alignment between political will and adequate resources, we think these developments resonate with ongoing attention to student debt cancellation and should stimulate a larger, national, forward-looking conversation about tuition-free access to higher education. Toward endorsing specific areas of focus in that conversation, we draw on our ongoing lines of scholarship to consider a few compelling reasons that other states should pursue similar outcomes of tuition-free higher education.

Considering Knowledge

First, the prohibitively high cost of tuition and the existing income-contingent loan systems combine to commit what might be called a structural contributory injustice when these policies or other structures undermine an individual’s ability to participate in and shape knowledge production in a given learning community.

Consider it this way: every day, individuals use a set of knowledge and understandings learned from others to navigate the world. While everyone navigates the world with knowledge they learned from those around them, privileged listeners often dismiss or ignore altogether knowledge gleaned from those with experiences at the margins of a society, favoring their own biased sets of knowledge instead. In such cases, the marginalized speaker experiences what the philosopher Kristie Dotson calls contributory injustice, or a violation of the speaker’s ability to participate in creating and sharing knowledge resources with others.

But the case Dotson identifies exists not only at the individual level, but also as a structural problem. In this case, prohibitively high tuition and income-contingent loans similarly undermine marginalized students’ abilities to participate in (and share their knowledge resources with) campus learning communities. This injustice occurs in ways that aggravate existing oppression across multiple dimensions of identity, but for now we will highlight one of the most obvious and most egregious forms: the harm to Black students and families. In the short term, these barriers place a significant financial burden on Black students via debt, constricting who tends to access postsecondary education and how they participate within it. A 2018 report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce notes that “Black and Latino students are only about half as likely as Whites to attain a bachelor’s degree.” And those who do enroll are taking on predatory debt that endures and shapes economic decisions throughout adulthood.

In the long term, these policies’ impact on student diversity leads to an impact on faculty diversity. As of 2018, three out of four full-time faculty nationwide were white, which contributes to systems and interactions of epistemic exclusion within the academy, or the persistent devaluation and dismissal of the research of faculty of color. If higher education is a valued institution of knowledge creation for a more accurate understanding of our shared world and the creation of knowledge resources to better operate within it, our nation should address these troubling patterns. For these reasons, tuition-free higher education initiatives should be discussed as a potential remedy for enduring, structural, knowledge-based shortcomings.

Considering Democracy

In addition to the knowledge-based considerations above, news of New Mexico’s law allowing for tuition-free public higher education should also encourage attention to democracy-based reasons for similar bills in other states. We offer three invitations for productive deliberation.

First, we encourage a public conversation about the notion that access to higher education is a meaningful resource for navigating an increasingly complex civic environment. To be clear, we are not claiming that access to higher education is a necessary prerequisite for civic participation or that the quality of a person’s civic participation is determined by their level of education. Instead, we want to note that higher education is often discussed as providing resources useful for how citizens show up for their civic work together. To the extent that this is true, even if only slightly or marginally so, prohibitively high tuition represents a paywall to a public form of civic preparation in our democracy.

Second, we think the national conversation about prohibitively high tuition should consider what is sometimes called the “expressive” value of these policies. That is, what does a particular tuition policy express about the persons impacted by it? What values or priorities are communicated to the population? Who, according to our state’s priorities, is worthy of being educated by our public resources? If the answer to that latter question might plausibly be “those who can afford it,” states might have reason to reconsider their views of and commitments to their citizens. Arguably, our democracy should communicate the value and worth of those persons within it, irrespective of their financial resources. In a statement on SB 140, Lujan Grisham captures the essence of this, noting that “signing this legislation sends a clear message to New Mexicans that we believe in them and the contributions they will make for their families and the future of our great state.”

Third, we note that pursuing tuition-free higher education is a matter of democracy in that there is an increasingly clear mandate from citizens. Recent polling shows that roughly two-thirds of U.S. adults favor tuition-free higher education. Opposition to tuition-free higher education tends to be concentrated mostly (though not exclusively) among those who are relatively well-off financially. The wishes of a relatively small and advantaged group should not continue to limit higher educational access for a growing segment of their civic peers. As one of us has argued in a section of a recently published book, Ethics in Higher Education (Harvard Education Press, 2021), when faced with a choice of advancing tuition-free public higher education, the democratic will of the people, including those most impacted, should guide action.

Looking Forward

Clarifying the moral stakes of these policy structures—considering the impacts on our shared knowledge-making and democratic systems as well as the real and weighty consequences to individuals—serves to underscore the necessity of widespread access to postsecondary education. The policy options before us are not perfect, nor will they completely achieve the degrees of access that justice might demand. While we have much reason to be excited about the fact that SB 140 is widely available to New Mexico residents, it is only funded for one year and further funding would be needed for a true system of tuition-free higher education. Yet to date, as many sociologists and economists have argued, approaches of free public college and cancellation of student debt appear to be the available policy options that best advance the moral aims described above. As members of higher educational institutions, we each have a role to play—amid the hard work of many other community organizers and political actors—in advocating for access and pursuing possibilities for creating campuses that are truly open to all.

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