New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced a proposal on Thursday, April 5, 2018, to devote $50 million of the state’s 2019 budget toward providing tuition assistance at state community colleges for students with family incomes below $45,000.
Murphy described this $50 million funding request as the first step in a multiyear effort to offer free community college to some students in the Garden State. Murphy campaigned on making community college free for all in-state residents — a proposal he believes would carry a $200 million annual price tag — but it’s unclear if he’ll receive the necessary support even for the $50 million initiative.
Helping New Jersey residents afford college
Murphy outlined the details of his plan as part of a discussion held at Mercer Community College.
He indicated that $45 million of the $50 million would be used to provide grants to students from families with household incomes below $45,000. The remaining $5 million would be provided to the 19 community colleges serving New Jersey students and is intended to help colleges prepare for an influx of new enrollments driven by the new grants.
Grant funding under Murphy’s proposal would be available to students of all ages, and both full-time and part-time students would be eligible.
While responding to questions about his proposals to eventually make community college free for all students, Murphy defended covering tuition costs even for students whose families could afford to pay.
“Who died and went to heaven and said public education is free from K to 12, but not before K or after 12?” Murphy said, according to press reports. “There are also kids in that system one could argue don’t necessarily need free education, but they get it. I’m a big believer that education ought to be a right, not a privilege.”
New Jersey’s community colleges are currently serving approximately 150,000 students, a fifth of whom are already going to school tuition free because of other grant programs. The new grants Murphy intends to provide with the $45 million in funding would be considered “last-dollar” grants. That means students would first need to exhaust other sources of grant funding, including Pell Grants.
Murphy estimated the new funding could help approximately 15,000 students enroll at no cost. However, because the budget doesn’t go into effect until July, students would need to wait until January 2019 when the second semester starts to enroll tuition-free. And that’s only if Murphy can get his requested funding, which is far from certain.
Republicans oppose Murphy’s plan. “No government-funded program is free,” said Republican State Sen. Tom Kean Jr. “Taxpayers always pay the price and, frankly, people in New Jersey pay far too much already.”
Some Democrats, including Senate President Steve Sweeney, have also expressed concerns about raising taxes to fund programs such as free community college. So, it’s unclear whether Murphy’s proposals will advance. Democrats must choose whether to offer community college for free as part of the budget that must be sent to the governor for his signature by June 30.
The growing list of states aiming to make community college free
New Jersey isn’t the first state to propose tuition-free community college. In fact, The Century Foundation reported a total of 16 states have at least one statewide “free college program” that allows at least some students to attend college without paying tuition costs.
Many of these were recent initiatives. Rhode Island began offering tuition- and fee-free community college beginning in the fall of 2017 to full-time students who maintain a 2.5 GPA. Tennessee will offer tuition-free community college to all students beginning in 2018. Starting in the fall of 2017, New York became the first state in the U.S. to offer free tuition at both two- and four-year schools for students with family incomes under $125,000.
However, eligibility for and access to these programs vary greatly from state to state. As The Century Foundation reported, many programs “include extensive eligibility requirements intended to either ration the benefit in order to bring down costs or direct the benefit to certain populations of students (or both).”
Free community college could provide much-needed relief
These programs could provide much-needed relief at a time when student debt is rising. Average student debt for the Class of 2016 was up 6% compared to the prior year, reaching $37,172. Further, an estimated 44.2 million Americans owe student loan debt. Debt balances have risen for both federal student loans and private student loans, with private loan debt hitting $7.8 billion in the 2014-2015 year, up from $5.2 billion in the 2010-2011 year.
Students who wish to attend four-year institutions could benefit if New Jersey, or other states, make community college free for everyone. Students could begin their education at a community college to significantly reduce total college expenditures.
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