GALLUP — College students currently graduate with degrees as well as mountains of debt — but a new bill is aimed at easing the burden of student loans in our nation.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., announced for the first time Monday new legislation titled “Degrees Not Debt,” in front of students from Middle College High School during a visit to Gallup, which also included a tour of the new State Veterans Cemetery site. Heinrich’s proposed legislation would revamp the federal Pell Grant system, aiming to help students nationwide.
“The state has to step up, and the feds have to step
up, and it has to work in aggregation, because so many students are graduating with a mountain of debt,” Heinrich told the classroom of students.
The proposed legislation focuses primarily on a revamp and revitalization of the Pell Grant system to try to get back to amounts last seen before the economic downturn of 2008. The act would increase the maximum grant amount from $6,000 per student/per year to $10,000 per student/per year. The grant would also be tied to the consumer price index so they would increase with inflation over the years.
Heinrich also stated that the act would lower the expected family contribution. Families making less than $75,000 a year would have to contribute $0 and the students would receive the full $10,000. Also, states would have to increase or at least maintain funding for higher education. Instead of raising prices, making the increase in Pell Grant funding essentially useless for students, states would have to increase higher education funding, helping students even more.
The Pell Grant can be received by qualifying students for up to 12 semesters.
During the announcement, Middle College students were encouraged to ask Heinrich questions about how the bill would affect them.
Junior Preston Benally asked Heinrich if the Pell funding could be stacked with other funds such as the New Mexico Lottery scholarship to further defray the cost of college.
“Yes, it absolutely would.” said Heinrich. “The lottery and the Pell Grant would get you most of the way to paying for college.”
Mallory Bayless, the only senior in the group, asked Heinrich if the bill included any funds for students and families who are above the $75,000 threshold.
“With the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), I did not get any assistance, none at all. But, my parents don’t make enough to contribute fully towards my college, is there anything in this legislation for middle class families?” Bayless asked.
Heinrich stated that only those students whose families made less than $75,000 would be able to receive the full contribution of $10,000 in grants, but those who are over that threshold can still receive some funding through the system, on a sliding scale based on family financial need.
While in Gallup, Heinrich also visited the site of the new State Veterans Cemetery, which is currently under construction on Gallup’s north east side.
The new cemetery will be located on the south side of Hasler Valley Road, which is approximately one mile east of the intersection with Ford Drive. Construction funding came from the U.S.
Department of Veterans Affairs, but the state-managed cemetery was approved by the VA in October 2017.
A total of $6.69 million was granted to fund the cemetery. The granted funds will pay for the construction of the first of four phases on the cemetery. The first phase is the most important of the four and will bring most of the important infrastructure necessary for the cemetery’s operation. That includes a main entrance, administration building, maintenance facility, committal shelter, 443 preplaced crypts, 140 in-ground cremain grave sites, 400 columbarium niches, a memorial wall and walkway, roadways and supporting infrastructure.
Gallup Mayor Jackie McKinney explained how the site was chosen, almost last minute, after the original site was deemed too small to be suitable for the cemetery.
“We were first in line, but the process to get the deed transferred, and all the hoops to jump through, it has taken us time with the state, so they had to move Fort Stanton in front of us,” McKinney said, referring to the other State Veterans Cemetery in Fort Stanton, which recently had its first phase of construction completed.
Aside from Fort Stanton and Gallup, Angle Fire and Carlsbad will also be receiving state cemeteries. White Sands Construction is building all four of the facilities.
The first phase of the cemetery is slated to be completed by spring 2019.