Down Payment on Murphy’s Plan for Free Community College in NJ

Carly Sitrin | August 1, 2018 | Education
Starting in spring semester, hundreds of students may not have to pay tuition as pilot program is rolled out

Credit: Sarah Casey/OIT/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy, left, and first lady Tammy Murphy discuss free community college with students at Rowan College in February 2018.
In what officials hope will be the first step toward eventually making community colleges tuition-free in New Jersey, a new pilot program means that hundreds of students may not have to pay tuition starting with the next spring semester.

The Community College Innovation Challenge is a new pilot program that will allow schools to give out additional grants to cover students with any unmet financial need, essentially bringing them to free tuition. Not every school or every student will be eligible. Only colleges that apply and are accepted into the program will be able to give students the special grant money, but all community colleges that apply will receive some baseline funding.

“We’re taking a crucial first step by testing the Community College Opportunity Grants at a select number of colleges,” David Socolow, executive director of the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority said in a statement. “This initial phase will not only help thousands of students next spring … but also will provide valuable lessons for future expansions of the program to offer free tuition to more students.”

Gov. Phil Murphy fought hard during recent budget negotiations to secure funding for free community college. Lawmakers sought to cut his proposal for an allocation of $50 million down to $5 million. The final budget included $25 million — and that’s what‘s funding this program. Twenty million dollars of that is for Community College Opportunity Grant (CCOG) awards which go directly to eligible students at the pilot program-approved schools; the remaining $5 million is for so-called “capacity building grant” aid to help interested colleges flesh out their strategies to recruit and fund more grant-eligible students. Even those colleges that are not accepted into the pilot program will be able to use that latter fund of money to prepare for reapplying next year when officials hope more funding will be available.

The program is being carried out jointly by Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA) and the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education (OSHE) which will review submissions and distribute the funding.

Smith Ellis: ‘…want to have this everywhere’

Zakiya Smith Ellis, Secretary of Higher Education
“The Governor’s goal is not just to have free tuition and fees at only some colleges, we want to have this everywhere,” Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis said. “So we’re thinking about that and the process of moving forward… if we are able to build this out more broadly we need to start thinking about how [colleges] would want to make the program successful.”

Schools will have until August 31 to submit applications; chosen institutions will know their status early fall so they can begin planning and recruiting students for spring 2019.

How it works

The $20 million in CCOG money will be given directly to students with an adjusted gross income of less than $45,000 and who are taking six or more credits in the spring 2019 semester. The money will cover tuition and educational fees.

But it all really depends on something called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA.)

“There’s no separate application for Community College Opportunity Grant — the application is the FAFSA,” Socolow said. “FAFSA is the gateway and starting point. It’s the key to unlock all student aid.”

CCOG awards are what’s known as “last dollar scholarships,” meaning they are used to cover a need after things like federal aid, school-specific campus grants, and other institutional scholarships are given out.

Only students at a chosen community colleges will be eligible for the CCOG money, but Smith Ellis and other state education officials hope this pilot program will bolster their case for receiving more money from the Legislature next year.

Any college that applies can receive a grant of at least $250,000 from that pot of $5 million to help prepare them to recruit and support more CCOG-eligible students. The idea, Smith Ellis said, is that if a college doesn’t clear the program’s requirements, they can use that funding to gear themselves up for the following year.

Key rules for schools

The rubric for approving a college includes three key targets that schools must hit: Outreach, support, and data.

Outreach: An applicant college must have a strategic plan to engage with the surrounding community and boost local student enrollment. It also must have a marketing plan to grow awareness of the school and pilot program, be able to identify past recruitment challenges, and develop a blueprint for getting more students to file a FAFSA.

As it stands, only about 60 percent of New Jersey students fill out a FAFSA, thus excluding many potentially eligible students from receiving any aid at all.

Support: Another metric for approving a college is its ability and willingness to devote resources to help students graduate and support them during their academic years. Colleges must prove that they are making an effort to assist “students who struggle academically, socially, or with non-tuition financial issues” by providing guidance counselors, partnering with social services providers, or otherwise allocating funding to the wellbeing of their students.

Data: Colleges must provide a lot of student data on federal, state, and institutional aid as well as on credit hours completed and tuition and educational fees charged to each student enrolled during the spring 2018 semester. Colleges must calculate the amount of unmet need for each student enrolled in spring 2018, separating out the amount of unmet need in tuition and educational fees for students that would be eligible for the CCOG award. They must also list all programs offered at the college and the net price students pay at different income levels.

It’s a lot to consider and the clock is ticking — applications must be in no later than August 31 this year. That leaves state officials with close to three months to comb through applications, select the approved schools, and disburse the funding.

“It’s aggressive but it’s aggressive on our end,” Smith Ellis said. “A lot of these calculations are things we would hope colleges are looking at anyway. We’re planning carefully and have a good team in place… working with HESSA, we are prepared to have an aggressive timetable for ourselves.”

Though the $25 million is not nearly what Murphy and Smith Ellis had originally intended, Smith Ellis said she remains hopeful the pilot will be a success and prove to the Legislature that it is worth significantly expanding next year.

“There’s a role for each college to play,” Smith Ellis said. “And we’re all going to have to work together moving forward to make this a success.”