Going to college in state would become more attractive, as in less expensive, to more New Jersey students under a proposed reinvigoration of a popular merit-based scholarship program that is moving through the Legislature.
Several of the bills considered at Thursday’s Assembly Higher Education Committee dealt with the high cost of college in New Jersey. The most significant measure approved (A-2769) seeks to repurpose, expand and sweeten the current New Jersey Student Tuition Assistance Reward Scholarship (NJ STARS) into the New Jersey HonorScholars program.
New Jersey is the largest net exporter of students to colleges in other states in the U.S., and on its inception in 2004, NJ STARS was seen as one way to entice talented high school graduates to attend college in state. However, its reach has declined since 2012 when the scholarships, which are funded by the state, were cut back to save money. So far, it is unclear how much more the new program might cost, and if Gov. Phil Murphy would be willing to pay for it.
NJ STARS is the largest non-need-based scholarship program the state offers. Currently, it provides free state county-college tuition to students who graduate from a New Jersey high school in the top 15% of their class. To qualify, they must be full-time students taking between 12 and 18 credits per semester. Through NJ STARS II, STARS county college graduates with at least a 3.25 grade point average are given $1,250 per semester for four semesters to go toward tuition at any in-state four-year college.
Incentives to attend college in NJ
The legislation, which passed unanimously, would broaden the idea of providing scholarships to bright New Jersey students who stay in state for college in several ways:
- The number of students eligible for HonorScholarships would increase, as the program would be expanded to all graduates in the top 20% of their class, which is who the program originally covered;
- Students going to county college would still get free tuition there, but eligible HonorScholars would get $2,000 per semester, up to a maximum of $8,000 over two years, to finish their studies at a four-year in-state college;
- A new provision would allow graduates in the top 10% of their class to go directly to a four-year college in state and receive $2,000 per semester, up to a maximum of $16,000, toward their tuition over four years.
“The costs of college are a tremendous burden for many hardworking families in New Jersey,” said Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), a sponsor of the bill. “Revamping the NJ STARS program can ease some of that burden, and open doors for more students to pursue higher education right here in New Jersey.”
High college tuition
New Jersey’s four-year public colleges are among the most expensive in the U.S. For the 2019-2020 school year, the College Board’s annual survey of colleges found the state has on average the fourth most expensive public college tuition and fees at $14,540, not including room and board. This puts the state behind only Vermont, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
New Jersey’s community colleges ranked better, but at $5,220 in average tuition for 2019-2020, they are still the 14th most expensive in the nation. The website College Tuition Compare put the average tuition at a New Jersey private college just above $23,000 in 2018-2019, slightly below the national average, but private college costs vary widely. Room and board can add $13,000 or more to the total annual bill at four-year schools for those who live on campus.
Making those costs a little less expensive could help sway a student to stay in New Jersey. School and state officials have struggled for decades to try to keep students from leaving the state to go to college, as many do not return to New Jersey to work and settle down.
The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that in fall 2016, New Jersey lost a net 27,262 recent high school graduates to schools in other states. That was 8,000 more than the second biggest loser, Illinois. Looking at the percent of graduates who attend college out of state, New Jersey does not fare quite so badly, with its 69% exodus the sixth highest in the nation.
“Since 2004, NJ STARS has helped so many students live their dream of going to college,” said Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer), another sponsor. “As tuition and college expenses continue to rise, it’s time for us to improve this program so that more students can benefit.”
After starting with high hopes and initially increasing in reach, the NJ STARS scholarships were cut significantly in 2012 as part of a compromise between legislative Democrats and former Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who had wanted to eliminate the aid entirely. (Christie had previously abolished another merit-based scholarship program.) As a result of that change, NJ STARS no longer pays any county college fees, and the amount of an annual NJ STARS II grant dropped from a maximum $7,000 to $2,500, although the money can be used at independent colleges, as well as public schools.
At its peak in the 2008-2009 school year, both NJ STARS programs provided more than $18 million to 5,753 students, according to an annual report from the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA), which administers the program. In 2017-2018, just 2,150 students got $6.4 million.
It’s unclear how much more the legislation might require the state to provide in scholarships, as the measure has not yet received a fiscal analysis by the Assembly Appropriations Committee. The next step for this measure has not been announced.
Need-based tuition aid
Should Murphy decide that the revised scholarships will be too expensive for the state to cover, he could wind up vetoing the bill. He has, in the past, said “no” to additional spending and has held some already budgeted expenditures in abeyance until the treasurer determines there is sufficient money to cover them.
Murphy’s own program to make community college affordable has so far focused more on need than merit.
This year, Murphy expanded the Community College Opportunity Grant (CCOG) Program, which fulfills one of his campaign promises. In its first full year covering all of the state’s two-year public colleges and with a higher income threshold to cover more students, the program has been allocated $30 million in the current state budget. It allows any New Jersey student whose household has an adjusted gross income of $65,000 or less to attend one of the state’s 18 county colleges for free. Last year, the program was piloted at a smaller number of schools, and eligibility was capped at $45,000 in income.
David Socolow, executive director of HESAA, said CCOG is a “last dollar scholarship” paid after all other forms of assistance — federal aid, state need-based grants, institutional scholarships and STARS grants. To be eligible, students must fill out the FAFSA federal financial aid form. Socolow said students hoping to start classes next spring have until Feb. 15 to fill out the FAFSA and learn if they qualify.