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Rough Ride for Education Official as She Pitches Community College Aid Plan

Members of Gov. Phil Murphy’s own party raise tough questions about his proposal for tuition-free community college in New Jersey

Zakiya Smith Ellis
Zakiya Smith Ellis, Secretary of Higher Education

Gov. Phil Murphy’s call for tuition-free community college in New Jersey appears to be in some trouble among lawmakers, including from his own party.

Several members of the Assembly Budget Committee peppered the acting Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis with tough questions about the free community college proposal, which is a cornerstone of Murphy’s broader economic agenda, during a lengthy hearing in Trenton yesterday.

Their concerns ranged from how exactly the $50 million that Murphy has earmarked for the launching of the program would be spent, to why the Murphy administration is pumping up tuition aid for community college students when K-12 school districts across the state remain significantly underfunded. The lawmakers also highlighted budget language that indicates $5 million of the $50 million would not go directly to students, but instead to funding planning grants at the colleges.

“We have to spend $5 million to figure out how to spend $45 million? How complicated can that be?” asked committee Vice Chair John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester).

Addressing questions about the $5 million earmarked for planning grants, Smith Ellis said it would help all 19 community colleges better plan for the increased enrollment that will likely come once the new program is launched.

Déjà vu all over again

Yesterday’s hearing marked the second rough ride for Smith Ellis as she’s tried to sell the governor’s community college proposal to lawmakers during the annual legislative-review process for Murphy’s broader, $37.4 billion spending plan for the 2019 fiscal year. The idea of providing free tuition also faced serious scrutiny late last month when the acting secretary appeared before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. In that case, it was Senate President Steve Sweeney — who has been holding up her final confirmation in the Senate — who led the way.

Adding New Jersey to the handful of states that provide students with tuition-free community college was a major campaign promise that Murphy, a Democrat, made last year as he ran for office against Republican Kim Guadagno. The proposal is also a key element of his broader plan to establish a stronger and fairer economy in New Jersey, as he has argued it will give more residents, particularly in minority communities, an opportunity to get better-paying jobs.

Murphy included what he’s calling a $50 million “down payment” toward his overall $200 million plan to provide tuition-free community college in his fiscal 2019 budget proposal.

During yesterday’s hearing, Smith Ellis and other officials from the Murphy administration explained that the $50 million would initially allow the state to cover the remaining cost of tuition for community college students whose families make less than $45,000 annually, after they have already received the maximum amount of aid from other federal and state programs. The Murphy administration estimates the program would benefit about 15,000 students in the first year.

“Our goal is that this proposal grows the number of students going to college in this state,” Smith Ellis said.

Is there another way to help students?

But Chair Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex) pressed Smith Ellis to explain why the students wouldn’t be better served if the extra $50 million was instead provided through the state’s existing tuition-assistance grant program, commonly known as TAG, or by boosting the Educational Opportunity Fund which specifically benefits low-income students. “We see some real, real results coming out of those programs,” Pintor Marin said.

Smith Ellis responded that the Murphy administration doesn’t view the free-tuition proposal as an “either, or” issue, but as part of a more “comprehensive approach” to making college more affordable in New Jersey. “I know we’ve talked about this as a new program, but it’s really just meeting the remaining financial need of the lowest-income students,” she said.

Burzichelli went a step further than his legislative colleagues, cautioning that Murphy’s budget proposal “is not finalized” in the eyes of lawmakers, partly because they are still awaiting the latest revenue-collection figures from the Department of Treasury, which are due later this month. He also brought up as a key issue the continued reluctance among legislative leaders like Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) to accept a series of tax hikes that Murphy is seeking as part of his broader budget plan to bring in roughly $1.7 billion in new revenue.

“The governor has built this budget, with I think a good focus, but on an anticipation of new taxes, and that’s going to be a struggle,” Burzichelli said.

‘Skin in the game’

Meanwhile, Republicans raised concerns about how the state would ensure students who qualify for the proposed tuition assistance maintain good enough grades to stay on a path toward getting their degrees without having any “skin in the game” of their own. In response, David Socolow, executive director of the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, said the students would have to be making “continued satisfactory academic progress” to retain the assistance.

Assemblyman John DiMaio (R-Morris) also took issue with the Murphy administration’s decision to launch a new program while his overall budget would still underfund several key priority areas, including the K-12 education-funding formula.

Coincidentally, yesterday afternoon Murphy held a bill-signing ceremony for legislation that provides tuition assistance to undocumented students in New Jersey, a measure that could cost an additional $4.5 million annually, according to a fiscal note prepared by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.

“I don’t think we’ll ever reach any solid goals if we keep spreading ourselves thin,” DiMaio said.

For his part, Murphy defended his free community college proposal while speaking to reporters last week in the wake of Sweeney’s tough questioning of Smith Ellis, saying it would help the state create a more robust “middle-skills” economy. Murphy also used a sports metaphor to suggest the budget-review process is still in the early stages, since the state constitution’s June 30 deadline for a new spending plan is still weeks away.

“This is evolving,” Murphy said. “These hearings, I think, are going quite well.”

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