New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham triumphs signed Senate Bill 140 earlier this spring. Also known as the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship Act, SB 140 removes tuition fees as a barrier for New Mexican students attending public institutions of higher learning in the state. Essentially, any New Mexican student attending a tribal or state public institution can have their tuition waived if they meet minimum credit hour and grade point average requirements. Although, to varying degrees, other states like California, North Carolina and Texas have made headlines for considering and enacting tuition waivers for certain groups of students, the New Mexico law provides students with an unparalleled pathway compared to those in other states.
While it may be tempting to view the new landscape of public higher education in New Mexico as a singular case of alignment between political will and adequate resources, we believe these developments resonate with continued attention to the cancellation of student debt and should spur a larger, national, forward-looking conversation about free access to higher education. To endorse specific areas of interest in this conversation, we draw on our ongoing lines of research to examine some compelling reasons why other states should seek similar outcomes in tuition-free higher education.
First, the prohibitive cost of tuition and existing income-contingent loan systems combine to commit what might be called structural contributory injustice when these policies or other structures undermine an individual’s ability to participate in and shape the production of knowledge in a given learning community.
Think of it this way: every day, individuals use a body of knowledge and understandings learned from others to navigate the world. While everyone navigates the world with the knowledge they have learned from those around them, privileged listeners often reject or ignore knowledge gleaned from those with experiences on the fringes of a society, furthering the place their own biased knowledge sets. In such cases, the marginalized speaker experiences what the philosopher Kristie Dotson Calls Contributory Injusticeor a violation of the speaker’s ability to participate in creating and sharing knowledge resources with others.
But the case identified by Dotson exists not only at the individual level, but also as a structural problem. In this case, prohibitive tuition fees and income-contingent loans similarly undermine the ability of marginalized students to participate in (and share their knowledge resources with) campus learning communities. This injustice occurs in ways that compound existing oppression across multiple dimensions of identity, but for now we will highlight one of the most obvious and egregious forms: the harm to students and black families. In the short term, these barriers place a significant financial burden on Black students through indebtedness, limiting who tends to access post-secondary education and how they participate. A 2018 report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce notes that “black and Latino students are only about half as likely as whites to earn a bachelor’s degree.” And those who register accept predatory debt that persists and shapes economic decisions throughout adulthood.
In the long term, the impact of these policies on student diversity leads to an impact on faculty diversity. Since 2018, three out of four full-time faculty nationwide were white, which contributes to systems and interactions of epistemic exclusion within the academy, or persistent devaluation and dismissal of color faculty research. If higher education is a valued knowledge-creating institution for a more accurate understanding of our common world and the creation of knowledge resources to function better within it, our nation should address these troubling patterns. For these reasons, tuition-free higher education initiatives should be discussed as a potential remedy for persistent, structural and knowledge-based gaps.
In addition to the knowledge-based considerations above, news of New Mexico’s law allowing tuition-free public higher education should also call attention to the democratic reasons for similar bills in other countries. states. We offer three invitations to productive deliberation.
First, we encourage a public conversation about the notion that access to higher education is a meaningful resource for navigating an increasingly complex civic environment. To be clear, we are not claiming that access to higher education is a necessary prerequisite for civic participation or that the quality of a person’s civic participation is determined by their level of education. Instead, we want to note that higher education is often seen as providing useful resources for how citizens present themselves for their civic work together. To the extent that this is true, even if only slightly or marginally, prohibitive tuition fees represent an obstacle to a public form of civic preparation in our democracy.
Second, we believe that the national conversation about prohibitive tuition fees should consider what is sometimes called the “expressive” value of these policies. That is, what does a particular tuition policy say about the people it affects? What values or priorities are communicated to the population? Who, according to the priorities of our State, is worthy of being educated by our public resources? If the answer to that last question could plausibly be “those who can afford it,” states might have reason to reconsider their views and commitments to their citizens. Arguably, our democracy should communicate the worth and worth of these people within it, regardless of their financial resources. In A declaration on SB 140, Lujan Grisham captures the essence of it, noting that “signing this legislation sends a clear message to New Mexicans that we believe in them and the contributions they will make to their families and the future of our great state”.
Third, we note that pursuing higher education without tuition fees is a matter of democracy as there is an increasingly clear mandate from citizens. Recent survey shows that about two-thirds of American adults favor tuition-free higher education. Opposition to tuition-free higher education tends to be concentrated primarily (but not exclusively) among those who are relatively well off financially. The wishes of a relatively small and privileged group should not continue to limit access to higher education for a growing segment of their civic peers. As one of us argued in a section of a recently published book, Ethics in higher education (Harvard University Press, 2021), faced with the choice to advance free public higher education, the democratic will of the people, including those most affected, should guide action.
Clarifying the moral issues of these political structures – considering the impacts on our democratic and shared knowledge production systems as well as the real and significant consequences for individuals – serves to highlight the need for widespread access to post-secondary education. . The policy options available to us are not perfect and will not fully achieve the degrees of access that justice might require. While we have many reasons to be excited that the SB 140 is widely available to New Mexico residents, it is only funded for one year and additional funding would be required for a true system. tuition-free higher education. Yet to date, as many sociologists and economists have argued, the approaches of free public college and student debt cancellation appear to be the available policy options that best advance the moral goals outlined here. -above. As members of institutions of higher education, we each have a role to play – amid the hard work of many other community organizers and political actors – to advocate for access and pursue opportunities to create campuses that are truly open to all.