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Our View: Farmington: New brain-drain hub?

Free college tuition for Native students means more educated, skilled labor landing in NM

Ute Mountain Utes, Southern Utes and Navajo on reservations bordering New Mexico are eligible for free college tuition and fees in New Mexico under legislation passed last month, as reported in The Journal on March 30. The beauty here is that tuition is also free for students to pursue trades rather than just traditional four-year degrees, and earn career training certifications for well-paid jobs that aren’t going away any time soon.

The New Mexico General Appropriations Act directs $75 million to the Opportunity Scholarship program, with $12 million coming from state funds and $63 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. (Love this use of ARPA money.) This free-college tuition program can support up to 35,000 students, or more than half of undergraduate students in New Mexico alone.

In a call last week, Manuel Heart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe in Towaoc, said this legislation “opens the door” to attend San Juan College in Farmington. Heart said a lot of Native students have studied there for careers in the energy industry, firefighting and nursing. “It’s right across the state line,” he said. With Fort Lewis College also a free-tuition option, “we are fortunate to have two colleges for the two Ute tribes that are tuition-free.”

Four-year FLC and two-year SJC offer wildly different college experiences. We just hope students heading to Farmington and beyond return to Colorado after graduation. With its lower cost of living, Farmington could be the next brain-drain destination as it grows its workforce.

Consider the costs alone. Overall, SJC is a few thousand less expensive per semester than FLC, where Native students pay out-of-pocket school fees. Cost of living indices are based on an average U.S. score of 100. Durango tops out at 129, meaning it’s significantly more expensive than most places in the country and Farmington is at 86, according to demographic data from Sperling’s BestPlaces. Spending a lot less could make or break the decision to stay in Farmington after graduation. Separately, the median listing price of a home in Farmington was $260,000 compared with Durango at $649,900 in February.

Farmington and Durango are worlds apart but the price tag in Farmington could inspire new graduates to put down roots. Say a student earns a nursing degree in Farmington. The average annual salary in both cities is in the $75,000 range. You see where we’re going with this. With our baby-boomer population, Durango may not have the health care options and personnel that cities with lower costs of living do.

New Mexico has wide participation in the scholarship program with 29 two- and four-year colleges, including tribal colleges and universities. Students must enroll in at least six credit hours and continue to enroll each consecutive semester.

And for those who had college interrupted or missed it all together, adult learners have that second chance at a higher education. New Mexico officials expanded the program beyond high school graduates when they saw data showing the majority of higher education students are older than 26 and, previously, did not qualify for scholarships. This is so real. We appreciate that adult learners are more likely ready for college, know better who they are and what they want to do in their professional lives. And will apply themselves. Nothing wrong with another opportunity to realize dreams.

In The Journal story, Stephanie Montoya, public information officer for The New Mexico Higher Education Department, said continued funding and support for the tuition program by the Legislature year-to-year looks promising.

From across the state line, New Mexico’s tuition-free program looks impressive. It’s a smart investment and lifts up Native students in Colorado and New Mexico, and resuscitates the economy with skilled labor and an educated workforce. It all takes off from here.

We often examine social problems in isolation. The lack of affordable housing, generational poverty and all that it brings. Maybe solutions are wrapped inside something larger. Maybe answers come after offering a free education for just about any Native student who wants one. New Mexico is on to something.