Governor Phil Murphy has decried the fact that higher education has been unattainable for many New Jersey families, “For too long, the goal of attending college and getting a good job has been out of reach for many of our state’s young people and families.” He added that, “All too often, those that do attend are saddled with debt that affects their ability to prosper after graduation, or prospective students leave the state to pursue a less expensive education elsewhere.”
To address these persistent problems Murphy has proposed a plan to “help make college a reality for many in our state” and encourage “our best and brightest stay in New Jersey, get a good education, and continue to contribute to our economic future.”
The final Fiscal Year 19 budget passed by the N.J. legislature includes 25 million to pilot a Community College Opportunity Grant (CCOG) program with a cohort of county colleges in the Spring 2019 semester. The governor and legislature anticipate that this pilot project will provide time to plan and to gather information and insights into how the initiatives can be expanded to serve a greater population of students.
The budget also includes 20 million for CCOG awards to eligible students whose adjusted gross income is under $45,000 per year. It also provides 5 million for direct assistance to the colleges for planning, outreach, and recruitment. To “maximize the impact” of the funding, the program will be offered at select colleges accepted to pilot the program.
Colleges may participate in the pilot program by applying for the Community College Innovation Challenge (CCIC). All the county colleges who apply for the program will receive $250,000. Every college selected for the pilot program will use the funding to support the implementation of the program. The non-pilot colleges can use the funding to prepare for future program initiatives related to the reduction of college costs.
Students attending these cohort colleges will be able to apply for funding if they meet the adjusted gross income criteria and are taking at least six credits. The funding can be applied to any remaining costs not covered by other federal, state, or institutional aid.
This proposal to fund the pilot program at community colleges led to questions and comments from leaders of both two-year and four-year colleges who pointed out that a host of complex issues beyond tuition affected students’ access to and success in college, including academic advising, support services, and tutoring. Some leaders suggested giving money directly to the colleges to enhance some of these services. Others added that perhaps the funding should follow the students wherever they chose to attend college. One college president cited the availability of funding from other state financial aid programs such as the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) for low-income students, the NJ-STARS Program that provides tuition for high-performing students who begin their education at county colleges and continue at N.J. four-year colleges , and Tuition Aid Grants (TAG) that supplement financial aid where federal support, such as Pell grants, stop.
Some college presidents were concerned about the establishment of what would amount to a K-14 education system. Several added that there was a significant difference between “free” and “affordable higher education. One four-year college president had serious concerns about the creation of an unequal education system, where students from lower-income families would be funneled into two-year colleges instead of having an equal opportunity to attend their institution of choice. Several college presidents indicated a need to see more specifics about Governor Murphy’s plan.
Other states, such as Tennessee, have begun exploring free community college since President Obama proposed it as a national initiative in January 2015. While the idea of free community college has been garnering some genuine interest around the nation, it remains controversial among state legislators and taxpayers who worry about cost implications.