Commentary

Tuition-free college isn’t free when it’s funded by oil and gas

Parsing the big-picture complexities of this region’s future

August 29, 2022 4:00 am

A pine tree with burned bark stands in front of a whole forest of similar pine trees that faced the hottest part of the Black Fire in southern New Mexico, losing most of their needles and limbs. (Photo by Shelby Wyatt for Source NM)

As thousands of students head back to their classrooms, those enrolled in higher education will begin to reap the benefits of tuition-free public college in New Mexico. 

On one hand, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Opportunity Scholarship gives thousands of students the chance to pursue higher education without the financial barriers previously standing in their way. 

But on the other, by funding these scholarships with volatile oil revenues, students like myself feel our futures are being held hostage: Do we invest in ourselves and take advantage of free higher education? Or should we even be wasting these last fleeting years of our youth in a classroom when our elected leaders are leading us down a path toward total climate collapse? 

The question is even harder for those of us with family in communities impacted by extraction. How do we feel good about using funds that have been generated from exploiting our homelands and sacrificing our people’s health?

My name is Jonathan Juarez-Alonzo, I’m 20 years old, from the Pueblos of Laguna and Isleta and I’m currently on an indefinite leave of absence from the University of New Mexico. As a first-generation college student, I started college eager for my future and the positive impacts an education would bring to me and my family long-term. I started classes in the fall of 2020 during the height of the COVID pandemic, and on the heels of the largest anti-police uprisings since the Civil Rights movement. 

The police killings of people of color across the country — George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, as well as local victims of police brutality like Abba James Boyd and Vicente Villela — had a significant impact on the direction I wanted to take my career. 

Criminology and social work were never career paths that I envisioned myself taking. Growing up surrounded by one of the most violent police forces in the nation, I felt called to make my career about getting resources to those in our communities who need them the most. 

But as I started paying attention to climate policy and actions, or lack thereof, on a local and state level, all my ambitions for a higher education were eclipsed. I don’t consider myself a college dropout, but for the foreseeable future, I have no intentions of returning to the classroom. I enjoyed the rigor of academia, but I knew I couldn’t spend the best years of my youth in the classroom while those in power chose to gamble with my future, not when the warning signs of climate catastrophe are everywhere. 

Our state was on fire all summer and now faces catastrophic flooding, while the Rio Grande runs dry during the summer months year after year, and the leading climate scientists say our country’s coastline will be significantly changed by sea-level rise in my lifetime.

New Mexico’s potential for renewable energy is unmatched in the Southwest with the third-highest potential for solar energy and the third-highest untapped potential for wind energy anywhere in the nation. Paired with energy storage capabilities that are rapidly expanding, we could be leading the world in a rapid transition to renewable energy, transforming from one of the largest exporters of oil and gas in the world to one of the most sustainable economies ever created. 

The reality is that we aren’t lacking in climate solutions. We’re lacking the political willpower to dismantle and transform an industry that holds every aspect of our state in economic hostage. 

Instead of rising to the challenge of the climate crisis and taking bold action, New Mexico is handing out symbolic victories like tuition-free college that are meaningless when thousands of New Mexicans are being displaced by wildfires, and our farmers are losing their crops because the acequias are running dry. 

We need real solutions like the ones our communities have been calling for – investments in proven renewable energy and battery technologies, and investments in industry cleanup (which our politicians should make the polluters cover).

I applaud that college is more financially accessible. But let’s make sure we are creating pathways to end our fossil fuel dependence and its dire climate impacts so those degree-holding youth have a future to graduate into.

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Jonathan Juarez-Alonzo
Jonathan Juarez-Alonzo

​Jonathan Juarez-Alonzo is a queer, two-spirit Indigenous climate activist and award-winning community organizer in unceded Tiwa Territory (Albuquerque, NM). Coming from the frontline Indigenous communities of Laguna and Isleta Pueblos, Jonathan has always understood the important role that environmental stewardship has in the complex identity of Indigeneity. Throughout his 19 years of life, Jonathan has been involved in countless organizations and social movements throughout the state of New Mexico and across the United States. In October of 2016, Jonathan’s family traveled to Standing Rock to deliver food and supplies to Water Protectors on the front lines against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Throughout 2019, Jonathan organized several school climate strikes across Albuquerque where thousands of students united to call for urgent action from local and state officials. Currently, Jonathan serves as the Chairmxn of the Board of Directors of Pueblo Action Alliance, a grassroots organization working on the frontlines of combating environmental racism and ecological destruction here in New Mexico.

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