Under Scrutiny: NJ’s Need-Based Tuition Aid Grants for College Students

Sheila Noonan | December 20, 2019 | Education
Assembly OK’s commission to identify deficiencies in 41-year-old program; measure awaits governor’s signature
Credit: Twenty20
One-third of full-time in-state undergrads receive support through TAG, with the amount based on factors such as financial need, college cost and available funding.

With the high cost of a New Jersey college education a pressing issue for thousands of families, the state’s tuition aid programs are coming under increasing scrutiny. The need-based Tuition Aid Grant program in particular is now set for close attention following an Assembly vote to set up a new 10-member commission comprised of educators and the public.

On Monday, the Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill (A-1997) authorizing creation of the Tuition Aid Grant Study Commission, which the Senate unanimously approved last May. Next, the measure heads to Gov. Phil Murphy, who has made lower college costs an administration priority, for his signature.

“When TAG was first implemented in 1978, it provided an opportunity to students to attend college,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Bergen, Passaic), one of the bill’s sponsors. “The program’s mission remains the same today, but budget constraints have led to lower grant awards and higher costs for students and families. The work of this commission will help us evaluate barriers and deficiencies in the TAG program and make necessary improvements.”

TAG, administered by the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, financially assists full-time in-state undergraduates and part-time county college students. According to the authority’s website, one-third of full-time in-state undergrads receive support through TAG, with the amount based on factors such as financial need, college cost and available funding. In 2017-2018 TAG awards totaling $435,354,342 were distributed among 74,331 full- and part-time New Jersey students working to achieve an in-state college education. The chart, below, lists the maximum award a student could receive in 2017-2018 by college category.

A high-cost state for college

A College Board survey found New Jersey’s public tuition and fees average $14, 540, fourth highest after Vermont, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. New Jersey’s community colleges are the 14th most expensive in the United States, with an average $5,220 tuition for 2019-2020.

The TAG commission is the most recent attempt to ease college affordability by state lawmakers. This month, the Assembly Higher Education Committee proposed reinvigoration of NJ STARS, a merit-based scholarship program, and earlier this year, student loans were a focus as well.

Once the commission forms, members will have a year to identify gaps or deficiencies in the 41-year-old program and issue a report with findings and recommendations. Some areas they’ll examine include current TAG awards; the percentage of higher education tuition costs covered by the grants; the formulas used over different fiscal years to calculate TAG amounts; and graduation rates of TAG recipients.

The commission will include David J. Socolow, as executive director of the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, or his designee; five Murphy appointees, including representatives from a state college or university, a state public research university, a county college and an independent private university or college; two members of the public appointed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester); and two members of the public chosen by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex).