Senator wants to help more NM college students complete degrees

By:  U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich

During this graduation season, I am proud to recognize all the students in New Mexico, and their families, who have worked so hard to earn their diplomas. The financial rewards of finishing college are well documented. On average, students who complete a bachelor’s degree earn a million more dollars over the course of their lifetimes than those with only a high school diploma. Those rewards benefit not just the students themselves, but their children, their families and their communities as a whole.

Unfortunately, far too many students who enroll in college are not reaching this important milestone. While 86% of students graduated from high school in 2019, a proportion that has steadily risen for the last two decades, only a quarter of students entering public two-year colleges graduate within three years.

In New Mexico, we have improved the percentage of our high school graduates who enter college. Still, only around 40% of first-time freshmen in the state who have enrolled in two or four-year colleges have completed their degree. Among Hispanic, Black and Native, as well as those from low-income families, graduation rates are even lower.

We need to do so much better than that. That’s why I am working hard to stand up a first-of-its-kind federal College Retention and Completion Grants program to help more of New Mexico’s students navigate all of the obstacles between orientation day and graduation day.

In recent years, there has rightly been a focus on putting a college education within reach for more students. We are closer than ever to helping students more easily afford a college education through tuition assistance at the state level through the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship and at the federal level with major increases to the Pell Grant, one of the most important tools that helps many low and middle-income students pay for school expenses.

Despite all that welcome progress for college access and affordability, policymakers still need to recognize that for many college students – particularly first-generation students and those from low-income families – getting into college is only the beginning.

If we want more students to complete their degrees and realize all of the economic benefits that come with that education, our colleges and universities must be able to provide students with more personalized, comprehensive support. And they need to make sure all students are able to access affordable transportation and housing and academic mentoring to help with navigating college requirements and staying on track.

My legislation to establish a new College Retention and Completion Fund would provide states with new funding to increase graduation and completion rates for all students enrolled in their public colleges and universities. I helped secure an initial $5 million in the Fiscal 2022 Omnibus Appropriations Agreement that Congress passed in March to start this program.

Colleges across the country will be able to put these funds to work right away for a variety of evidence-based programs that support student retention, completion and success. That includes programs like the Student Experience Project, which is working with partner institutions like the University of New Mexico to create a more inclusive and equitable classroom environment in entry-level courses and improve the support services provided to first and second-year students from underrepresented backgrounds. Another great example is New Mexico State University’s on-campus food bank called the Aggie Cupboard, which has helped address growing food insecurity among its student community.

Colleges will also be able to implement two-generation solutions that help college students with children. We have not adapted well enough to the reality that more than one in five college students are also parents. If parents are able to find time to attend school, they have to fit their class schedule around their jobs and their child’s school and child care hours. All of this limits parents’ access to a full and rigorous class schedule. The new Retention and Completion Grants will allow colleges to provide better support to students with children, then families will overcome barriers and achieve success together.

The new Retention and Completion Grants will also allow schools to scale up the direct supports that students need such as mental health services, mentoring, and career coaching. Schools will be able to provide students with assistance in applying for and accessing financial assistance and benefit programs that will help them meet the basic needs like food and housing. Finally, this new funding will allow colleges to create incentives to keep students on track, provide accelerated learning options such as early college high school programs, and improve transfer pathways between different state schools and community colleges.

I remain focused on passing even greater long-term investments in the newly established College Retention and Completion Grants so we can finally make sure students aren’t just getting into college. We must make sure they are also getting through college.