What is the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship?

SANTA FE, NM (KRQE) — Pushing to make higher education more affordable, New Mexico has joined the ranks of states offering free college for the most part. In early 2022, lawmakers expanded the 2-year Opportunity Scholarship, which now aims to cover all tuition and fees for certain students.

So, who is eligible for the funds, and what are the conditions? And how does it differ from the existing lottery scholarship? Here’s what you need to know:

“Opportunity” versus “Lottery” – what is the difference?

New Mexico is no stranger to state-paid college scholarships. For more than two decades, the state has had the Legislative Lottery Scholarship, often referred to as the Lottery Scholarship. Launched in 1996, the program has helped approximately 135,000 students attend college, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.

The lottery scholarship is primarily designed for students who have recently graduated from high school. To receive the lottery scholarship, you must enroll as a full-time student within 16 months of obtaining your high school diploma or GED.

The Opportunity Scholarship, on the other hand, is intended to enable new Mexicans who may have graduated from high school or started college years ago to return to college – potentially with the full their tuition and fees paid each semester.

“The intent is to get back to students or college students, working parents, or people whose higher education has been interrupted,” says Senator Elizabeth “Liz” Stefanics, who sponsored the legislation. “Sometimes projects don’t go as planned. Sometimes people get sick, sometimes they have to become caregivers. . So, this program is really designed to help individuals earn certificates through certificate programs, associate degrees, and bachelor’s degrees.

Another key difference between the two scholarships is that the lottery scholarship requires a student to be enrolled full-time. This means enrolling in at least 15 credit hours per semester at a four-year college or 12 hours at a two-year college. The Opportunity scholarship, on the other hand, requires a minimum of just six credit hours per semester.

The lottery scholarship also requires students to attend college for one semester before being eligible for the scholarship. The Opportunity Scholarship does not have this so-called “bridge” semester. Instead, the Opportunity Scholarship can apply for a student’s first semester, provided they meet the eligibility criteria.

Stephanie J. Montoya, spokesperson for the state Department of Higher Education, says those eligible for the Lottery Scholarship are also generally eligible for the Opportunity Scholarship. It is therefore possible that a student could have their lottery scholarship “bridge” semester covered by the Opportunity scholarship.

Residency and high school requirements

The Opportunity Scholarship funds are intended to help New Mexicans from diverse backgrounds attend college. But there are some basic eligibility requirements.

Be an eligible student under the Scholarship Act, you must be a resident of New Mexico which will take at least six credit hours. This excludes the summer semester. You also cannot take more than 18 hours per semester.

You must also have obtained a high school diploma or have received the equivalent diploma. The Opportunity Scholarship is also not for people who have completed a bachelor’s degree in the past. According to the state, the Opportunity Scholarship is for people who want to get their first undergraduate degree.

How to apply?

To access Opportunity Scholarship funds, state officials say students must go through your college’s financial aid office. This school can help you assess whether you are eligible and help you apply for the Opportunity Scholarship, as well as other scholarships, like the Lottery Scholarship.

The application process must be repeated each semester. You can continue to apply for the funds each semester until you graduate or up to 160 credit hours if you are taking a bachelor’s degree. If you are working toward an associate degree, you can renew the scholarship for up to 90 credit hours.

Could the state run out of funds to pay for scholarships?

The state’s Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) estimates that statewide demand for the Opportunity Scholarship could total more than $100 million annually. This demand is expected to increase over time, a CFL Report Remarks. The LFC report also indicates that demand may exceed available funds.

But lawmaker Liz Stefanics told KRQE News 13 that she expects there will be enough funding for the first year. After that, she adds, if the scholarship fund needs more money each year, lawmakers can ask for a budget increase. And she expects the Governor to help find more funds if needed.

Notably, $63 million in funding approved in the 2022 regular legislative session will help pay the majority of the Opportunity Scholarship through June 2023. These one-time funds will need to be replaced with another financial source next year.

GPA requirements

To be eligible for the Opportunity Scholarship, students must maintain a grade point average (GPA) of at least 2.5 out of 4.0 in college. This is the same GPA requirement as the state lottery scholarship. If you got bad grades in high school, don’t worry. Your high school GPA does not impact eligibility.

Which schools can the scholarship apply to?

Opportunity scholarship funds can be used at any public post-secondary institution or tribal college in New Mexico. This includes four-year state colleges, like the University of New Mexico, as well as community colleges.

So, the list of approved schools includes New Mexico State University, New Mexico Highlands University, Western New Mexico University, Eastern New Mexico University, and New Mexico Tech.

Students attending other schools are also eligible. This includes the New Mexico Military Institute and some tribal colleges, according to the state Department of Higher Education.

What about commercial programs?

Under the Opportunity Scholarship Act, some students in the Professional Certificate Program will be eligible for funding. But not all commercial programs are eligible. In the coming weeks, the state Department of Higher Education will release a list of eligible occupations.

Stephanie Montoya of the Department for Higher Education says the list will focus on high-demand occupations.

“It will be driven by workforce needs data provided by the Department of Workforce Solutions. And so that includes both the fastest growing and most job openings in the state of New Mexico,” Montoya said. “So you’re really looking at workforce-oriented programs, such as technical and trades programs, education, information technology, construction, health care, etc.”

What happens if I stop going to school for a semester?

To remain eligible for the Opportunity Scholarship, you must remain registered. This means meeting the six credit hour requirement for each semester, excluding summers. You must also be making “satisfactory academic progress” as defined by the school.

What if I have some college credits from years ago?

If you meet other eligibility requirements, you may be able to get scholarship funds even if you dropped out of college some time ago. According to the State Department of Higher Educationif you have completed less than 160 hours toward a bachelor’s degree (or 90 toward an associate’s degree), you can still receive scholarship funds.

Are there any exceptions to the requirements?

The Opportunity Scholarship Act allows certain exceptions. Students with disabilities or other “exceptional extenuating circumstances” may apply for a waiver of eligibility requirements. Such a waiver should be renewed each semester, and the financial officer of each college has the decision-making power for waivers.

When are the funds available?

The effective date for the legislation providing for the Opportunity Scholarship is July 1, 2022. So students are already applying for some of the funds this fall, Stefanics says.

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