Solving the student debt crisis shouldn’t mean handouts
Treating students who are in the country illegally better than our own children is not a productive higher education reform, but that’s exactly what Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is proposing.
The governor wants to offer “F-R-E-E” in-state tuition at New Mexico’s colleges and universities with her New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship program. That sounds like an admirable goal, but as always, the devil is in the details.
Proponents of the plan are suggesting we use the surplus from our oil boom to pay for the new program, for instance, but it’s completely unclear how lawmakers would keep the program funded in the event that oil revenues dry up in the future.
Furthermore, “free tuition” is guaranteed to create some truly perverse incentives. Allowing in-state students to pass tuition costs on to taxpayers removes much of the incentive for our public universities to keep tuition growth low. In fact, offering “free” tuition actually increases the incentive for colleges and universities to hike tuition, increasing the cost to taxpayers and making our schools less attractive for out-of-state students, whose higher tuition rates would otherwise help to offset the cost of tuition subsidies.
To the chagrin of at least one Republican legislator, the Opportunity Scholarship also makes no distinction between in-demand degrees such as nursing and the proverbial “underwater basket weaving” majors. If this is really about helping build a better workforce and getting a return for the taxpayers’ investment, then that might be something to reconsider.
Tennessee, for instance, offers free tuition at community colleges and vocational schools, but not at four-year universities, because the explicit purpose of its program is to strengthen the state’s workforce.
But virtually no one is talking about the most egregious flaw in the plan: It provides benefits to unlawful residents that even citizens of New Mexico won’t get.
Since 2005, New Mexico has offered in-state tuition rates to people who have no legal right to be in the United States. That misguided policy provides an incentive for foreigners to disregard our lawful immigration system and subject children to the dangerous journey across our border.
Buried in the details of the “free” tuition program, however, is an even greater insult to American citizens and legal immigrants: it actually treats unlawful residents better than American citizens.
Gov. Lujan Grisham’s plan is a “last dollar” program, meaning it will pay the remaining tuition balance after all scholarships, federal subsidies and other forms of financial assistance are taken into account. Immigrants in the country illegally, however, aren’t eligible for Pell Grants, nor for the many scholarships and other programs that are available only to legal residents.
That means New Mexico taxpayers will actually be paying more to subsidize tuition for similarly situated unlawful residents than they do for American students.
That’s absolutely outrageous, and it surprises me that so few commentators have pointed this out — especially given that education experts have cited the same factors to warn that New Mexico’s plan could have the unintended effect of increasing inequality.
“Because it’s universal, it’s actually going to end up being regressive,” Tamara Hiler, director of the education think tank Third Way, told Inside Higher Ed. “The students who will most likely benefit are likely to be wealthier students."
Like immigrants residing in the country illegally, wealthier students are ineligible for Pell Grants, and therefore require larger subsidies than comparable lower-income students.
That’s unfair. Wealthy students shouldn’t receive more taxpayer money than poor students, and students who are breaking the law shouldn’t receive more taxpayer money than American citizens and legal immigrants. The “Opportunity Scholarship” is just an opportunity for inequality.