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Murphy Offers Loan Aid, Intern Funding to Keep STEM Students and Jobs in NJ

Students in high-tech fields would be eligible for up to $8,000 in debt forgiveness, in program governor promotes as ‘small down payment’ for significant economic return

Murphy STEM
Gov. Phil Murphy announces programs to help STEM students in New Jersey.

To help keep STEM scholars in New Jersey after graduation, Gov. Phil Murphy is proposing two state-funded programs to address the affordability issue head-on for those pursuing careers in the coveted sector.

The first initiative is designed to aid New Jersey students seeking degrees related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) who commit to working here after they graduate by forgiving up to $8,000 of their student-loan debt.

The other program will use the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development to encourage more companies to offer STEM students their first paid internship, which can often lead to a well-paying job right out of college.

The two STEM proposals line up well with a broader goal of reigniting the state economy by encouraging more innovation and investment in new technologies, Murphy said as he outlined them in detail yesterday at a news conference in Hoboken.

Outmigration is an issue

“I don’t want other places to prosper from the skills (students) are learning here,” Murphy said during the event at Stevens Institute of Technology. “I want them to raise their families and stay in New Jersey,” he added.

And, while lawmakers have thus far bristled at Murphy’s call for the state to fund free community college in New Jersey, the more targeted initiatives he detailed yesterday drew immediate praise from two key legislators with backgrounds in the STEM field, suggesting they will be anxious to serve as sponsors.

New Jersey business leaders have for years been concerned about an outflow of the state’s young people to places with a lower cost of living; a report issued earlier this year called on policymakers to do more to help address issues like college affordability and workforce development. The issue of outmigration is particularly important to the STEM field, as researchers have linked roughly half of the growth in the U.S. economy over the last 50 years to scientific innovation.

Murphy, a first-term Democrat, said New Jersey has allowed other states to surpass its standing as one of the nation’s top places for innovation, and he’s highlighting places like Newark that have embraced STEM as part of a broader economic-revitalization effort. Murphy’s administration has also gotten involved in a push to create a technology “hub” in New Brunswick that would see government, academia and the private sector all work together to generate more economic development for the state.

Student-loan forgiveness

The student-loan forgiveness proposal that Murphy unveiled yesterday would also involve a public-private partnership by providing college graduates pursuing a career in STEM with as much as $1,000 in annual student-loan forgiveness, for up to four years. The loan forgiveness would kick in once the students completed the first four years of their career with a New Jersey company; it could be worth up to $8,000 as their employer would also generally be required the match the state’s own investment.

Murphy estimates the program would cost the state about $12 million once fully phased in several years from now, when all students who would initially qualify for the loan forgiveness begin to reach their fifth year in the workforce.

“We think it’s a small down payment for the tremendous overall economic benefit these employees, and employers I might add, would return,” the governor said.

Meanwhile, the paid-internship program would use about $4.5 million in state funding to help companies in the STEM field provide students at both the college and high school level with their first paid internships. The program would cover up to half the cost of the internship — as much as $1,500 for every student. It could ultimately lead to a more diversified STEM workforce in New Jersey, Murphy said, since many students can’t afford to take internships if they don’t come with a paycheck.

Helping to pay interns

“The fact is, internships have become a prerequisite for employment in many STEM fields, and statistics suggest up to half of these interns are eventually offered jobs at the companies in which they intern,” the governor said.

The proposals were applauded yesterday by Chris Sullens, president and chief executive of WorkWave, a fast-growing tech company based in Holmdel that Murphy has held up as an example of the type of economic growth his administration is seeking to encourage. Sullens said his company is on track to continue expanding, and its new employees will have to “come from somewhere, and they should come from here in New Jersey.”

“What Gov. Murphy is talking about is music to companies like ours’ ears,” he said.

Whether the initiatives are funded through new legislation or directly in the annual budget, Murphy apparently already has Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) and Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Somerset) lined up to serve as sponsors.

Sarlo, an engineer who chairs the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, said doing more to help STEM students be able to afford to launch their careers in New Jersey is “the right thing to do.”

“What we are proposing here is an amazing way to keep some of our best and our brightest in the STEM field right here in New Jersey,” Sarlo said.

Zwicker, a physicist who’s in charge of education at Princeton University’s Plasma Physics Laboratory, cited his own experiences with students while praising Murphy’s proposals. “What we understand is that once we get our young people in our pipeline, they will stay here,” Zwicker said.

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