Putting Faces to Students Aided by Free Tuition at Community Colleges

Carly Sitrin | June 20, 2019 | Education
Governor hopes to expand Community College Opportunity Grants to reach 18,000 students, but budget cuts could shrink program significantly

Credit: Office of Secretary of Higher Education
Seated left to right: Essex County College President Anthony Munroe, Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis, Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, and HESAA executive director David Socolow with Essex County College students.
Many students at Essex County College have had their lives changed by the state’s new free community-college tuition program. The grants have helped single mothers finish their degrees, and have been “truly a relief” for immigrant students and others struggling to pay their tuition.

But state lawmakers in Trenton are putting forward their own budget plan that would significantly cut spending on Gov. Phil Murphy’s tuition program. As they advance that legislation, however, higher education officials heard from students who would be adversely impacted by those changes.

Robert Okoro, from Irvington, is a general science major at Essex County College in his last semester before graduating. He joined 22 of his classmates on campus Wednesday to share their experiences of the Community College Opportunity Grant (CCOG) program with state Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis, Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), and Higher Education Student Assistance Authority executive director David Socolow. Jasey, in particular said she was grateful to be able to put faces behind the budget line.

“When I registered for my course, I got an email telling me ‘you have to pay out of pocket,’ so I paid the first installment and I was [out of] cash,” Okoro said. He soon got another email asking for the remainder of the money he owed, “but there was no money in the pocket.” Then, he said he got one more notification: “I got an email telling me you qualify for free tuition. I didn’t believe it. I thought it was part of a scam …The money was huge enough to clear off the remaining debt. I was stunned. I was surprised. I said ‘wow, this is truly a relief.’”

Tsedale Williams, like Okoro, had only one more course to take before graduating and was able to complete her degree thanks to the program’s funding and additional financial aid grants. She said as a single parent with two small children, she struggled to attend school and care for her family.

“I’m very grateful for this,” Williams said. “And for the opportunity you’re giving other students.”

Slamming the window of opportunity

But that same opportunity afforded Williams and Okoro may only be available to some students if lawmakers move forward with their budget as written, Smith Ellis said.

The governor’s budget proposed $58.5 million for the CCOG fund, which would expand the program to support approximately 18,000 students at all New Jersey community colleges for the 2019-2020 academic year. The Legislature countered on Monday by offering nearly half that amount — $30 million.

Lawmakers have questioned Murphy’s proposal, pointing to budget documents that indicate not all of the fiscal year 2019 allocation has been spent. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) told NJ Spotlight reporters in May that he was hesitant to provide the full $58.5 million requested.

“They didn’t spend the money we gave them last year,” Sweeney said. “They spent $5 million.”

Murphy is predictably displeased with the cuts, setting the stage for a possible line-item veto. As he warned in a letter to lawmakers, he may be “forced to take corrective action,” if the Legislature continues with their “indefensible and needless cuts to wildly successful programs such as tuition-free community college.”

He told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday that it would be “literally stupid for New Jersey to not expand” the CCOG program, which has been lauded by education officials and college presidents statewide. Indeed, all 19 community college presidents and the president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges signed letters supporting CCOG, which were sent to all Assembly and Senate members last week.

For her part, Jasey, chair of the Assembly higher education committee, said she intends to bring the stories shared at the roundtable discussion to her fellow lawmakers in the hope of swaying them to allocate more money to the program.

“One of the things that most people don’t realize is when we’re in Trenton discussing the budget… it really is effective and helpful for me as a legislator to say to my colleagues ‘look, I listened to 21 students talk about why this is important to them’ … that resonates with legislators. It makes it real. It’s not just a number or a line in the budget. It puts a face on the budget.”

Learning from pilot program

In last year’s budget, Murphy secured $25 million for the free-tuition plan, which was enough to pilot it at 13 of the state’s community colleges. From that pilot, Smith Ellis said state officials learned a lot about the program’s shortcomings, including the $45,000 maximum annual family income. There were plenty of people, she said, that came in just a few dollars above that ceiling, who were by no means wealthy, but could not receive any CCOG money due to the strict income limitations. There were also complaints that the funding could not be used for summer classes or specialty courses, such as nursing or culinary programs that require additional fees beyond tuition.

This year, the Legislature is again proposing $25 million for grants to students and $5 million for colleges to spend on outreach efforts to make students aware of the grants. They are also looking to increase the eligible income ceiling to $65,000 and to extend the grants to cover fees for nursing, culinary, and other career and technical education programs, as well as summer courses.

“Those are all worthy and interesting ideas, but all of those changes would cost more money than the program we’re running now,” Socolow said. “We’d love to do that, but we can’t do that with $25 million in student grants.”

The CCOG funds are “last-dollar” grants, meaning they close any remaining gap in tuition costs once all other grant programs like Tuition Aid Grants (TAG), Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF), and federal Pell grants are disbursed in full. Students who fill out their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms are automatically considered for the free-tuition program without taking any extra steps.

Lags and snags in delivering funds

To the point that not all of the CCOG money was spent in the last round, Socolow said there is some lag time in making students aware of the program and some paperwork snags that kept students from being able to receive their money. Not every student who is eligible fills out their FAFSA, for example, and still others run into issues with the federal FAFSA verification, which can require a host of additional documentation that economically disadvantaged students or their families may not be equipped to produce. Smith Ellis and Socolow said these are areas they are working to fix, and if they do, that could open the door for thousands of additional students to claim CCOG money.

“Because we set this up as a gap-filling, last-dollar program, you’ve got to get those first dollars first. If you can’t get help from the feds because of federal verification, everything else comes to a screeching halt,” Socolow said. He noted that the administration got a better picture of who those students were that were missing out from the pilot program and promised that number “won’t be as high as it was in the spring.”

But Socolow, Smith Ellis, and Jasey all said hearing from students like Essex County College’s Jasminn Rocha — whose father lost his job last week and whose mother is out looking for more work to pay their bills and rent — may help put pressure on lawmakers during their budget discussions.

“You could see these people on a spreadsheet,” Socolow said, “but to meet them in person, to hear them talk about their two jobs, to talk about what they’re majoring in, to talk about what country they immigrated from and the children that they’re raising, it just puts a human face on these facts that we’ve been trying to explain to people.”