Gov. Phil Murphy hit the road yesterday to pitch his plan to expand a tuition-free community college program that won wide praise from education officials after it was launched last year, but has also drawn serious skepticism from some lawmakers.
At an event held in Mount Laurel on the campus of Rowan College at Burlington County, the governor made the case for a more than doubling of the program’s state funding — to help make it a yearlong offering for students at all 19 community colleges in the state.
Detailing her own personal experience with the program was 24-year-old Erin Finter, a RCBC student from Medford who said the state funding allowed her to remain enrolled in classes.
“Thanks to this grant, I am able to focus on academics, and I am on track to finish my degree by next year without the constant fear that I won’t be able to pay for my classes,” Finter said.
Pushback from key legislators
But despite her emotional testimony, support for the program’s expansion from key lawmakers remains anything but certain. Among those raising questions is Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who said earlier this week during an interview with NJ Spotlight staffers that he has serious reservations about the request for new funding in Murphy’s budget for the coming year.
“They didn’t spend the money we gave them last year,” Sweeney said. “They spent $5 million.”
The free-tuition program was also a source of friction last year, and lawmakers ultimately halved Murphy’s original budget request. This year it’s one of a number of key issues that still have to be worked out with legislative leaders in the final few weeks before a new budget must be enacted.
When asked about the legislative resistance to the funding request yesterday, the governor had a strong message for any holdouts.
“They’ve got their eyes closed, with all due respect,” Murphy said.
“They’ve not met the folks who are being impacted by this,” Murphy said. “They literally have their eyes closed, that’s all I have to say.”
An estimated 18,000 students to benefit
Murphy, a first-term Democrat, made the free-tuition program a main campaign promise, saying it would help make a college education more affordable for the middle class in New Jersey, where tuition costs have risen dramatically in recent years.
Murphy secured $25 million for the free-tuition program in the FY2019 budget, and it started out as a pilot at 13 of the state’s 19 community colleges last year. After calling the initial offering a success, the governor’s proposed budget for FY2020 is now allocating $58.5 million to allow for grants to be provided during the full 2019-2020 academic year.
The Murphy administration estimates the expanded funding will support approximately 18,000 students with annual family incomes not exceeding $45,000, which is the program’s income ceiling. The grants work as “last dollar” funding, meaning they only come into play after other grant programs like Tuition Aid Grants (TAG), Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) and federal Pell grants are provided in full.
Students who fill out their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms are automatically considered for the free-tuition program without any extra application steps.
“Our long-term goal must be to ensure the ability of the community college grant program to support even more middle-class students throughout their studies,” Murphy said yesterday.
“We can’t pull the rug out from under them, or from under their dreams,” he said.
Support from educators
Also pitching the merits of expanding the program was state Higher Education Secretary Zakiya Smith Ellis. She stressed the need for students like Finter to be able to focus their energy on their studies rather than on coming up with the last few hundred dollars needed to remain enrolled in classes.
“We need to step up and make the investment in students,” Smith Ellis said. “This is literally one of the best investments we can make.”
But earlier this month when she appeared before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee in Trenton, Smith Ellis faced a round of tough questioning about the program, including from Chair Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen).
One of the issues they pressed her on was why the Murphy administration was seeking more funding when budget documents indicated not all of the FY2019 allocation has been spent. Sarlo also said he supports the state’s longstanding tuition-assistance programs, but has yet to be sold on the notion of free tuition.
“I’m a big believer in … having some risk, having some skin in the game as you sit in community college,” Sarlo said during the hearing.
During the meeting with NJ Spotlight staff in the State House on Wednesday, Sweeney indicated he would keep the funding at $25 million, especially since Murphy’s overall $38.9 billion spending plan for FY2020 calls for raising taxes on New Jersey’s millionaires.
Murphy yesterday stressed the need for that tax hike, and the estimated $536 million it will raise, but Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) remained opposed to it. It’s one of the big issues that will have to be resolved before June 30, when a new budget must be enacted.
“We can pass a budget without raising taxes,” Sweeney said this week.
Strong words met with strong words
He also responded strongly yesterday when told that Murphy said lawmakers who don’t support the proposed funding expansion “have their eyes closed.” Sweeney pointed to his longtime support for community college scholarship programs like NJ STARS and for a 2012 higher education bond issue. He also raised the issue of Murphy vetoing legislation last year that sought to save community colleges $27 million by changing healthcare offerings for their employees.
“Our eyes were open when we supported the NJ STARS program, our eyes were open when we enacted the higher-education bond, our eyes were wide open when we proposed health-care reforms that would have produced estimated savings of $27 million for the county colleges, and our eyes were open last year when we allocated $25 million for county colleges they have yet to fully use,” Sweeney said.
For his part, Coughlin spokeswoman Liza Acevedo said only that the speaker “remains committed to making investments in education.
“As we move forward into budget season, the increase in state funding is one of many elements of Governor Murphy’s proposed FY2020 budget that will be carefully reviewed and assessed,” Acevedo said.