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Op-Ed: Why Free Community College Is Right for New Jersey

Traditional grants and scholarships no longer keep college affordable. ‘Bold action,’ as Gov. Murphy has proposed, is necessary

Sara Goldrick-Rab
Sara Goldrick-Rab

When they were growing up and entering the job market, many people throughout New Jersey got a pretty good deal. With family support, some work, and perhaps some financial aid, college was affordable for them. This was especially true if they went to community college.

But times have changed. Young people from all families and older workers in need of new skills want to attend college — and they plan on going, even if it means they will end up with debt and no degree. People who are of lower income, people of color, and women know that there’s little economic security in their futures without at least some sort of college credential, whether it’s from a technical program or a university.

New Jersey has been trying to make college affordable, using an array of grants and scholarships that are given out based on family income and high school performance. This is a common approach, but the evidence suggests that it doesn’t work.

I’ve spent more than a decade looking at how such programs affect students from lower-income families. Unfortunately, while students are grateful for the support, the size of those grants pales in comparison to true college costs and the grants are too hard to get and keep. They often constitute a small and inconsistent discount, and an invitation to debt. Perhaps even more importantly, they leave many people out in the cold. Consider hard-working middle-class parents who make too much money to qualify for need-based financial aid but too little money to afford today’s college prices. Unless their child is a superstar, loans are the only help they are offered.

Starved of resources

This approach made more sense at a time when most people didn’t want to attend college, it wasn’t required, and college costs were low enough that the Pell Grant largely covered the bills. But now most of New Jersey wants access to affordable, high-quality public higher education, a reality that has long been neglected by New Jersey’s politicians. Instead of investing in people to propel economic growth, they have shifted the burden of paying for college onto families, let the value of financial aid programs decline, and made even community colleges pricey while at the same time starving them of the resources needed to ensure students succeed.

New Jersey should be glad that Gov. Phil Murphy is offering an alternative. He wants to make community college free while also charting a course toward reinvesting in the colleges themselves. Cash-strapped families may think that the state can’t afford such an ambitious agenda. But the truth is that New Jersey can’t afford to miss this opportunity.

Investments in education pay large dividends to individuals, families, and the economy. The best-educated states are also the wealthiest. Republicans and Democrats both recognize this. Gov. Lamar Alexander responded to families and business leaders when he created the Tennessee Promise, helping people from rural areas and displaced workers attend community college alongside 18- and 19-year-olds seeking to live out their dreams. Gov. Andrew Cuomo recognizes the value of free higher education too, though restrictions on his program in New York make it far less useful to New Jersey than the program Murphy has proposed.

Free community college sounds simple, and in fact that’s the point. Instead of asking students to put up with financial aid games, waiting until they are enrolled to know how much they will pay for tuition, this approach is clear and consistent. There is no tuition, period. This transparent information, presented early and often, helps people overcome the hurdles to enrolling in school and also seems to help them stay enrolled. Many people throughout New Jersey possess the talent and drive to make it in college but aren’t attending because they fear they cannot afford it. Remove that barrier, and even without additional support, they will succeed.

Admissions criteria that keep students out

Many government programs throw up walls and keep most people from benefitting. But free community college does the opposite. A father working full-time and enrolled in college part-time while he supports his family will be eligible under Murphy’s plan. A woman who finished high school with poor grades because she was taking care of an ill parent will have a second chance to get back on her feet by benefitting from free community college too.

That’s why Murphy’s plan is right to focus on community colleges and keep the rules to a minimum. These locally-driven, responsive institutions help moms who need new skills in order to return to the workforce as their kids go to school just like they support recent high school graduates whose parents can’t afford to take out a second mortgage to pay for college. They offer English and math and marketing alongside design and computer science, preparing people for all aspects of New Jersey’s economy. And their teachers and advisers meet students where they are, rather than using expensive admissions criteria to keep out students they don’t feel like teaching.

New Jersey is at a critical juncture, struggling to compete in the knowledge economy with an under-educated workforce. Now is the time for bold actions to support people across the state who want to learn more and earn more.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is Professor of Higher Education Policy and Sociology at Temple University and author of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream.

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