SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Pushing to make higher education more affordable, New Mexico has joined the ranks of states offering free college for most. In early 2022, lawmakers expanded the 2-year-old Opportunity Scholarship, which now aims to cover all tuition and fees for some 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’s the difference?

New Mexico is no stranger to state-paid college scholarships. For over two decades, the state has had the Legislative Lottery Scholarship, often called the Lottery Scholarship. Started in 1996, the program has helped around 135,000 students attend college, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.

The Lottery Scholarship is primarily designed for students who recently graduated high school. To receive the Lottery Scholarship, you must enroll as a full-time college student within 16 months of getting your high school diploma or GED.

The Opportunity Scholarship, on the other hand, is intended to allow New Mexicans who may have graduated high school or started college years ago go back to college — potentially with the full sum of their tuition and fees paid each semester.

“The intention is for returning students or students, parents in the workforce, or individuals who have had their higher education interrupted,” explains Senator Elizabeth “Liz” Stefanics, who sponsored the legislation. “Sometimes plans don’t go ahead with life as we expect. Sometimes people get sick, sometimes they have to become caregivers. . .So this program is really designed to assist individuals in gaining 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. That means enrolling in at least 15 credit hours per semester at a four-year university or 12 hours at a two-year university. The Opportunity Scholarship, on the other hand, requires a minimum of only six credit hours per semester.

The Lottery Scholarship also requires students to attend college for one semester before they’re 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 eligibility requirements.

Stephanie J. Montoya, a spokesperson for the state’s Higher Education Department says that people eligible for the Lottery Scholarship are also generally eligible for the Opportunity Scholarship. But it’s not yet clear if a student could have their Lottery Scholarship “bridge” semester covered by the Opportunity Scholarship.

Montoya says the Higher Education Department is still in the rulemaking process. However, the state agency is “exploring the possibility” of Opportunity Scholarship funds being used to fill gaps in tuition and fees that aren’t covered by so-called “bridge scholarships.” A bridge scholarship is financial aid used to cover a gap in tuition and fees before a different scholarship kicks in.

Residency and high school requirements

Opportunity Scholarship funds are intended to help New Mexicans from various walks of life attend college. But there are some basic eligibility requirements.

To be an eligible student under the Opportunity Scholarship Act, you have to be a New Mexico resident who is going to take at least six credit hours. That excludes the summer semester. You also can’t take more than 18 hours per semester.

You also have to have either graduated high school or received the equivalent credential. The Opportunity Scholarship is also not intended for people who’ve already received a bachelor’s degree in the past. According to the state, the Opportunity Scholarship is for people looking to get their first undergrad degree.

How do you apply?

To be clear, there is no “application” a prospective student has to submit to a specific state department to earn Opportunity Scholarship funding. However, scholarship funds are doled out through colleges and universities.

To access Opportunity Scholarship funds, state officials say students have to go through the financial aid office of your college. That school can help you assess if you’re eligible for the Opportunity Scholarship, as well as other scholarships, like the Lottery scholarship.

The process must be repeated each semester. You can remain eligible for the funds each semester until you get your degree or up to 160 credit hours if working towards a bachelor’s degree. If you’re working towards an associate degree, you can renew the scholarship 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 the statewide demand for the Opportunity Scholarship could total more than $100 million per year. That demand is expected to grow as time goes on, a LFC report notes. The LFC report also states that it’s possible that demand will outstrip available funds.

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

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

The Opportunity Scholarship program is already budgeted for $12 million in recurring state funds. Another $24.5 million from other scholarships will be absorbed into the state program starting in July 2023.

GPA requirements

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

What schools can the scholarship apply to?

Opportunity Scholarship funds can be used at any public post-secondary educational institution or tribal college in New Mexico. That 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, the Western New Mexico University, Eastern New Mexico University, and New Mexico Tech.

Students attending some other schools are also eligible. That includes the New Mexico Military Institute and some tribal colleges, according to the state’s Higher Education Department. In all, there 29 public colleges and universities in New Mexico that are participating in the program, according to the state.

What about trade programs?

Under the Opportunity Scholarship Act, some trade certificate program students will be eligible for funding. But not all trade programs are eligible. In the coming weeks, the state’s Higher Education Department will release a list of eligible trades.

Stephanie Montoya, from the Higher Education Department says the list will focus on high-demand trades.

“It will be driven by workforce needs data that is 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 says. “So you’re really looking at workforce-oriented programs, such as career technical education and trades programs, education, information technology, construction, health care, things along those lines.”

What if I stop attending school for a semester?

To remain eligible for the Opportunity Scholarship, you have to stay enrolled. That means meeting the six-credit-hour requirement for every semester, excluding summers. You also have to make “satisfactory academic progress,” as defined by the school.

What if I have a few college credits from years ago?

If you meet other eligibility requirements, you might be able to get Opportunity Scholarship funds even if you stopped college a while ago. According to the state’s Higher Education Department, if you have completed less than 160 hours towards a bachelor’s degree (or 90 towards an associate degree), you can still receive scholarship funds.

Are there exceptions to the requirements?

The Opportunity Scholarship Act does allow for some exceptions. Students with disabilities or other “exceptional mitigating circumstances” can ask for a waiver of eligibility requirements. Such a waiver would have to 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 of the legislation providing the Opportunity Scholarship is July 1, 2022. So, students are already applying for some of the funds this fall, Stefanics says.