New Jersey already guarantees that students from families earning less than $65,000 can go to county college for free.
Now, students from families earning up to $80,000 can also get a significant discount on county college expenses.
The state’s Community College Opportunity Grant program would guarantee that students whose households earn between $65,001 and $80,000 would receive no more than 50% of tuition and fees at New Jersey’s county colleges under an expansion of the state’s budget state’s proposed program.
According to state estimates, the proposed grants could drastically lower the sticker price of attending two-year colleges for about 7,000 students.
At New Jersey’s 18 county colleges, which rank among the nation’s most expensive two-year colleges, annual tuition and fees averaged $7,747 this year.
“This sticker shock is keeping students from even considering college,” said David Socolow, executive director of the State Higher Education Student Assistance Authority. “We have to make college more affordable first and tell people about it.”
The expansion of the Community College Opportunity Grant program is part of the $48.9 billion state budget that Gov. Phil Murphy unveiled last week. The Democrat-controlled state legislature is expected to negotiate the final budget with Murphy’s administration before the governor enacts the spending plan in late June.
If the $8 million match for the Community College Opportunity Grant program survives budget negotiations, the program will grow to $35 million and expand to students whose families make up to $80,000.
To qualify for the 50% Tuition Guarantee, students must complete the Free Student Aid Application, known as FAFSA. Undocumented immigrants residing illegally in the country can also qualify for the program by completing the New Jersey Alternative Financial Aid Application, created for dreamers who are ineligible for state aid.
Officials use the student’s total household-adjusted gross income, a number typically found on tax forms, to determine whether the family falls within the $65,001 to $80,000 income range. If this is the case, the student is guaranteed to pay 50% of the county college’s tuition and fees, or possibly less if they qualify for other student aid or scholarships.
“The state is essentially guaranteeing this group that they will pay half price,” Socolow said.
The promise of a 50 percent tuition discount isn’t as costly for the state as it sounds, he said. The Community College Opportunity Grant program is a “last dollar” grant.
That means students continue to apply for federal Pell grants, state college grants, and other scholarships and financial assistance each year. Then, if that money doesn’t pay at least half of the student’s tuition and fees, the state steps in to make up the difference with a community college scholarship, known as the “last dollar.”
However, the money would only cover tuition and fees. Students would still have to pay for their books, transportation, childcare, housing, and the other costs of attending college.
New Jersey is one of several states that have joined the free college movement in recent years to expand aid programs. Murphy, during his first campaign for governor, began promising free county college tuition to all students as one of the cornerstones of his education plan.
In 2018, the state announced the Community College Innovation Challenge pilot program, which offered two years of free tuition at community colleges for students from families earning less than $45,000. Last year, Murphy signed legislation making this program, now known as the Community College Opportunity Grant program, permanent for students from households earning less than $65,000.
About 50,000 students — or about 45% of all college students in the state — come from families earning less than $65,000, according to state figures. Most of these students already pay no tuition or fees because they receive state or federal grants. About 13,000 are receiving money from the Community College Opportunity Grant program to give them the “last dollars” they need to avoid paying tuition and fees.
The law, which Murphy signed into law last year, allows the state to expand the community college assistance program to higher-income families as more money is allocated in the state budget.
Under the current program, students earning less than $65,000 receive free county college tuition, but if their households earn $65,001, they could be required to pay full tuition. The state wants to eliminate that “eligibility cliff” by adding the 50 percent grant tier for families earning between $65,001 and $80,000, Socolow said.
It’s unclear whether the state plans to raise income limits further in the coming years or to fulfill Murphy’s original campaign promise of free county college tuition for all students.
“We cannot predict future budgets,” Socolow said. “The goal is to make college more affordable.”
The expansion of the county college program ties with other assistance programs introduced by the Murphy administration, including the new Garden State Guarantee Initiative, which adds third and fourth years of tuition-free education for low-income students to all New Jersey public four-year colleges later this year. This allows students in families earning less than $65,000 to transfer from county colleges and pursue their bachelor’s degrees at other state schools free of charge.
The Garden State Guarantee will also include a tier of additional tuition rebates for third- and fourth-year students earning up to $80,000.
Several New Jersey colleges — including Stockton University, New Jersey City University, and Saint Peter’s University — have also added their own guarantee programs, offering free tuition to low-income students.
Last month, Rutgers-New Brunswick introduced the Scarlet Guarantee, a new program that promises students at the state university’s flagship campus will attend school free of charge if their families earn less than $65,000. Under the deal, students will also pay no more than $3,000 to $5,000 per year in tuition and fees if their households earn less than $100,000.
Rutgers-Camden and Rutgers-Newark already offer variations of the Tuition Guarantee program.
Despite the growing number of rebate programs and increasing state aid, tuition at New Jersey’s public colleges remains among the highest in the United States. Sticker prices have continued to rise even as some colleges delayed increases during the pandemic.
Average annual tuition and fees at county colleges increased 1.4% to $7,747 for the 2021-2022 school year, according to the state’s Tuition Dashboard. Tuition and fees for the four-year public college increased 7.3% to $14,642 before adding room, board, books and other fees.
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Kelly Heyboer can be reached at email@example.com.