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NJ Cuts State Scholarship Fund

Democrats tout new law that ‘stabilizes’ NJ STARS, but program reduces incentives for high school grads.

Last week, state Democrats touted they had saved a critical college funding program designed to provide scholarships for New Jersey students who choose to get a college degree in state, rather than travel outside. The reality, however, is that the program will provide fewer dollars to those who participate and may no longer serve the purpose it was designed to.

Gov. Chris Christie, who last Thursday signed the Democrat-sponsored legislation, had threatened to eliminate the NJ STARS program -- which offers financial incentives for bright high school graduates to attend a county college -- shortly after taking office in 2010.

The new law, while saving the program, cuts by more than half the amount high school seniors who graduate in the top 15 percent of their class can get if they transfer to a state college after earning an associate’s degree, providing they kept at least a 3.25 grade point average. About 5,200 New Jersey college students received one of these scholarships this year.

Some of the Assembly members who sponsored the bill noted that the reductions would keep the program alive in at least some form. “With budgetary constraints, this is one way to preserve programs that helps keep talented local students and potential future employees in New Jersey,” said Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex).

“Since the beginning of the economic downturn, families across new Jersey have had to tighten their belts and with the cost of higher education on the rise, have found it nearly impossible to pay for their children’s college,” said Sen. Sandra Bolden Cunningham (D-Hudson), a sponsor of the law and chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, in a statement. “With the passage of this law, we are able to stabilize this program, by reducing the overall costs to both the state and New Jersey’s colleges and universities, while continuing to provide scholarships and funding to New Jersey’s students.”

The program cut comes at a time of debate over New Jersey’s “brain drain” -- the percentage of high school students who choose to attend college outside the state. Supporters of Christie’s proposal to merge Rutgers University’s Camden campus into Rowan University have said creating a large public research university in South Jersey would help keep more students in New Jersey.

STARS was created eight years ago to help do just that. Currently, it pays both full tuition and all fees for top-ranked high school graduates to earn an associate’s degree at a county college. Depending on GPA, a student can then receive a $6,000 or $7,000 scholarship, with the higher amount going to a student with at least a 3.5 GPA to complete a bachelor’s degree at a four-year public college in New Jersey.

The state budget anticipates spending $16.4 million on those scholarships this year, with a 15 percent reduction to $13.8 million in the 2013 fiscal year that begins July 1.

The new law, which passed both houses of the legislature unanimously, changes the STARS program so that it will only pay county college tuition, not fees. The average county college tuition is around $3,000 a year, according to the New Jersey Council of County Colleges. Quoting the Commission of Higher Education, the state Office of Legislative Services put the average annual fees paid by full-time county college students at $881 this year.

STARS II scholarships will drop to a maximum $2,500 a year, with no bonus for a higher GPA. However, for the first time, the money can be spent at a New Jersey independent college, as well as a public school. And the state will provide all the money for the scholarships. Previously, they were funded half by the state and half by the college the student attended.

The fiscal analysis by the Office of Legislative Services (OLS) could not calculate an exact savings due to the various changes in the program -- including budget language that excludes county college fees from reimbursement this year -- but estimated the treasury would save between $1 million and as much as $4.8 million due to the changes.

Parents and students have expressed concerns about the program changes.

“That's definitely going to affect me,” said Aaron Jones, an NJ STARS student finishing his freshman year at Raritan Valley Community College. He said the lower scholarship amounts don't provide much incentive for students to stay in New Jersey, but added, “I'm happy there's still something.”

Only current college juniors are grandfathered and guaranteed to get $6,000 or $7,000 to complete their senior year. Current freshmen and sophomores at county colleges who may have entered the STARS program anticipating those scholarship amounts will only be eligible to get $2,500 in their junior and senior years, as will all new students entering the program in the future.

Jonathan Dion, a classmate of Jones, is hoping to transfer to Rutgers University's pharmacy college as a junior. Receiving $2,500 a year, instead of a potential $7,000 “will definitely affect me,” he said.

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