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Who Doesn't Like Free Tuition at 2-Year Colleges? Try 4-Year State Schools

The governor’s proposed budget includes $50 million to offset tuition at community colleges. Four-year schools are wondering when they’ll get their piece of the pie

Hudson Co. Community College

While Gov. Phil Murphy’s first budget proposal looks to fulfill one campaign promise related to higher education — to make community college free — it does little to satisfy another pledge: to make college more affordable.

A proposed $50 million hike in Tuition Aid Grants for community college students is one of the largest increases in the budget Murphy proposed last week. This additional money is expected to help 15,000 students attend one of the state’s two-year colleges, with financial assistance beginning in spring 2019. Students with family income of less than $45,000 would be eligible for these grants, which will be distributed according to a sliding scale based on the student’s or family’s wealth.

This is “the first step in making community college tuition-free for all over the course of the next three years,” Murphy said in his budget address. “From the new high school graduate to the adult returning to school for a new skill, we will make sure that cost is not a roadblock to a good, or better, job.”

Four-year state colleges concerned

That drew praise from county college officials and concern from the four-year state colleges.

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Aaron Fichtner, president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, called the $50 million in grants to students a “significant investment in New Jersey’s future.” Fichtner said the assistance begins the process of “ensuring that all New Jerseyans will have access to the post-secondary education they need to be successful in today’s rapidly changing economy.”

The New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, on the other hand, issued a statement saying, “We are concerned about the Free Tuition program for community colleges primarily because, as presented, it is not embedded within an overall plan for public higher education in the state.”

Setting a national standard

Murphy describes the additional grant money as part of his effort to “set a standard for the nation by providing free access to an education for everyone from pre-K to an associate’s degree.”

During his campaign, Murphy called for making county college free for all, estimating the cost at $200 million. That plan drew some criticism, both from Republicans and from some in higher education who said that many of the 325,000 students attending the 19 community colleges across the state come from middle- or high-income families that can afford the relatively low cost — the average amount a student is paying this year to attend a two-year public college in their county of residence is just $3,853, according to the New Jersey Office of Higher Education.

Earlier in his campaign, Murphy spoke more generally about “lowering the cost of a college education.” In an issue paper, the Murphy campaign wrote that New Jersey students who attend state college “are forced to stomach some of the nation’s highest tuitions and fees, resulting in an average student debt burden of nearly $33,000.” It went on to say that Murphy “is committed to making college affordable for every New Jersey student. Specifically, he will increase state aid to institutions of higher education, including community colleges, to lower tuitions and fees.”

Murphy’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal does not contain an increase in operating aid to the state’s four-year colleges.

The reaction from the New Jersey Association of Colleges and Universities was predictable: “We are disappointed that the tens of thousands of students attending the state's senior public colleges and universities were entirely left out of the plan and that the urgent issues related to state operating support for these institutions remained, yet again, unaddressed.”

New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive think tank, called for increased four-year college support last October, saying it should be the number one higher-education priority for the new governor. The group noted that between 2008 and 2016, the state had cut subsidies to public four-year colleges by an inflation-adjusted 21 percent, while enrollment rose 15 percent during the same period. Tuition and fees increased and so did student debt, which nearly doubled at some schools.

NJPP did not criticize Murphy for not increasing aid to the four-year institutions and praised his $50 million grant hike for county college students as an achievable beginning to addressing some of the ways the state has neglected college students, particularly those with limited means.

‘A mammoth mess’

“Gov. Murphy has inherited a mammoth mess, brought on by a quarter-century of disinvestment in critical assets, a struggling economy, underfunded pensions, declining support for property-tax relief, school aid and assistance to public colleges and universities,” said Gordon MacInnes, NJPP’s president. “His first step for higher education is to offer struggling families — and only struggling families — the chance to send their kids to community college. Yes, it's a small step, but it's the first one in almost a decade that goes in the right direction.”

Murphy has proposed some other, small increases designed to help the poorest students.

He is seeking to increase the total amount in Tuition Aid Grants by $7 million, which would provide an estimated 3,500 new grants. The state would spend nearly $433 million in grants in fiscal 2019, to assist more than 67,500 four-year students.

The governor also wants to add $1.5 million to the Educational Opportunity Fund program “to address critical staffing needs.” That program provides grants of up to $2,500 annually to some 13,000 students, as well as such support services as counseling and tutoring, from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. A student from a family of four would be eligible next year if household income does not exceed $49,200.

It is unclear whether the Democratic-controlled Legislature will back these proposals. Neither the Assembly or Senate leadership would address the specific programs yesterday, with officials saying they would be considering them as part of the budget consideration process, which begins next week with public hearings.

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