Higher Education at Any Age and Any Stage

Higher Education at Any Age and Any Stage

Fostering Success From Cradle to Career

By Stephanie M. Rodriguez

Getting children started early on thinking about college can have a big impact on them, even in their toddler years. One of my earliest memories is of my dad’s graduation day at the University of California, San Diego. I remember him holding me as a toddler in his arms after the ceremony, and I moved the tassel on his cap from the left side to the right. “I’m a graduate now. It goes on this side,” he said as he moved the tassel back to the left. I like to share a treasured photo from that day when I speak to students and educators because it represents the beginning of my educational journey and the power of higher education to impact generations.

New Mexico families should know that it is never too early (or too late) to explore college and career training options. As you may have heard, the Land of Enchantment is also the land of tuition-free college thanks to the New Mexico Opportunity and Lottery Scholarships, making it possible for tens of thousands of New Mexicans of all ages to pursue higher education.

Finding ways to pay for a child’s college education is stressful for many families, and navigating the financial aid process can be complicated, especially for parents or guardians of first-generation college students. Thankfully, New Mexico’s tuition-free college programs for residents are designed to be simple, so there is no separate application to fill out to receive the benefit. All your student has to do is enroll in any of New Mexico’s 29 participating colleges and universities in a career training certificate, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree program and maintain a grade point average of 2.5 while in college.

New Mexico was the first state to introduce tuition-free college through the Lottery Scholarship in 1996, a program that is still available today for students who enroll full time in two-year or four-year programs within 16 months of graduating high school and complete their degree within the required timeframe. This program benefits more than 10,000 students each year; recent completers of adult education programs and recently discharged veterans are also eligible.

I am so excited to see that, for the first time in 10 years, enrollment at New Mexico’s public colleges and universities is on the rise again. This fall, New Mexico realized the highest year-over-year growth of college enrollment of any state, with the exception of New Hampshire. We are seeing a 4% increase across the board and a 9% increase in new students alone, a trend we are hopeful will continue with sustained investments in education at every level.

This November, we launched a statewide college application campaign to encourage high school seniors and anyone else who wants to pursue higher education to apply. We hosted multiple college application events across New Mexico with the support of high school counselors and our partners at the New Mexico Educational Assistance Foundation and the New Mexico Public Education Department’s College and Career Readiness Bureau.

The GEAR UP college readiness program at the New Mexico Higher Education Department is also at work in seven school districts across New Mexico. GEAR UP provides opportunities for students in grades seven through twelve to tour college campuses, explore career options, attend leadership conferences, and more.

Helping more students make the transition from high school to college has always been a priority, but we also know that many New Mexicans take different paths from college to career, which are just as important. I am glad to see so many returning, part-time, transfer, and parenting students enrolling in college or career training and benefitting from the Opportunity Scholarship, the first state scholarship program designed with these students in mind.

          More New Mexicans than ever before are benefitting from tuition-free college under the Opportunity and Lottery Scholarships and advancements in our state, including free childcare for most families, meaning that parenting students have more support when enrolling in college. A recent study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that for parenting students, out-of-pocket costs related to higher education are two to five times higher than for students without children. The report also found that most student parents would need to work 52 hours per week in order to pay for the average cost of attending a four-year college while paying for childcare. One out of every five students nationally is also a parent, and that number is likely higher here in New Mexico, making tuition-free college and free childcare essential for uplifting children and families in our state.

          Even if you never graduated from high school or need to improve other skills for the workforce or in preparation for college, our adult education programs offer free instruction and test preparation for New Mexicans aged 16 and older at 26 locations across the state. Enrollment in these programs also increased this year, and a greater number of students attained a high school equivalency diploma. A full list of program providers is available on our website.

          We are laying the groundwork for transformative change for students and families in New Mexico. As a state, we must stay focused on creating and sustaining a culture of education at every age and every stage. There are so many options for New Mexico families to succeed and thrive, and we are here to support them along every step of the journey.

          For more information about tuition-free college via the New Mexico Opportunity and Lottery Scholarships, visit ReachHigherNM.com.

          For more information about the New Mexico Higher Education Department, the GEAR UP college readiness program, and adult education programs, visit hed.nm.gov.

          Stephanie M. Rodriguez is the cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Higher Education Department­­. Previously, she served as senior policy advisor under Governor Lujan Grisham and covered topics and policies surrounding education, military affairs, and the national laboratories. She earned a master’s and a bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning, and she is a former provost fellow and guest lecturer at the University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning.

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