Fine Print: How New $50M Program Is Supposed to Make College in NJ Affordable

The Garden State Guarantee is the latest Murphy administration effort to cut tuition and fees for more students
Credit: Edwin J. Torres/ Governor's Office
Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis, left, and Gov. Phil Murphy at a Feb. 26 roundtable to discuss the Garden State Guarantee

What it is: Escalating college costs have resulted in significant post-degree debt for many students, and for still others, keep them from completing or even starting their post-high school education. With the Garden State Guarantee, a new higher education proposal announced during Gov. Phil Murphy’s fiscal year 2021 budget address, its proponents believe they have a viable way to assist New Jersey undergraduates at all income levels.

Who would benefit: Under the Garden State Guarantee, which would go into effect in fall 2021, New Jersey students with an annual household adjusted gross income of $65,000 or less would pay zero tuition and fees after all other sources of federal and state aid are exhausted for their first two years at any of the state’s public four-year universities and colleges. For students slightly above the $65,000 threshold, the colleges would establish a sliding-scale tuition schedule, and there would be locked-in tuition for all students who graduate on time according to their academic program (such as four years for a four-year program, and five years for a five-year program).

Some question the financing: The proposed program has generally received accolades throughout the New Jersey higher education community. However, some have already raised concerns that the financing mechanism laid out for the program would leave it at the mercy of annual budget battles and thus on unstable ground.

Other programs: College promise programs such as the Garden State Guarantee are becoming increasingly common; according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of March 2019, 17 states had them, although almost all at the community college level. For four-year colleges, New York’s Excelsior Scholarship provides free tuition at SUNY schools for eligible students, as does the Washington State Grant for certain in-state baccalaureate institutions.

And, some New Jersey public colleges have their own “last-dollar” scholarship initiatives — those that come into effect after federal Pell grants, state Tuition Aid Grant (TAG) and Equal Opportunity Fund (EOF) and other aid sources are applied. These include New Jersey City University’s Debt-Free Promise Program and William Paterson University’s Pledge 4 Success, as well as Rutgers Newark and Rutgers Camden. Rutgers Camden’s income-tiered Bridging the Gap program, for example, has 1,040 students who receive funding this academic year; those with annual household incomes below $60,000 — about half — receive full tuition assistance. Of the remainder, 249 students receive 75% tuition assistance, and 235 students receive 50%.

Designed to reach more students: The Garden State Guarantee goes beyond these programs, says Zakiya Smith Ellis, the state’s Secretary of Higher Education. “It features a statewide, more comprehensive design that will reach a broader swath of students,” she said. “In addition to helping those with the greatest financial need, often coming from groups underrepresented at colleges, the Garden State Guarantee’s tuition price lock applies to students at all income levels. It’s exciting to extend our commitment for affordable and predictable college costs to all students at our public colleges and universities.”

Those in favor: There’s been favorable reaction to the proposed initiative beyond that heard at a state-convened roundtable on Feb. 26 with Murphy, Smith Ellis, college representatives and students at William Paterson University. Dr. Ali Houshmand, president of Rowan University, also has a favorable early review of the program. “Its focus on college accessibility and affordability is consistent with ours at Rowan. We believe the citizens of New Jersey should have access to a quality, affordable education, something we’ve demonstrated with our 3+1 program with community colleges,” he said. Especially during the first two years, he added, students should be concerned about their studies instead of working 20-30 hours a week to pay for college.

Mark McCormick, president of Middlesex County College, said the Garden State Guarantee builds on the Murphy administration’s Community College Opportunity Grant (CCOG) program, which covers tuition and fees for income-eligible community college students. “With these two programs combined, it would be possible for income-eligible New Jersey students to pay no tuition all four years leading to their bachelor’s degree,” he said. “It could be the pathway to keep New Jersey students, who’ve already benefitted from the best K-12 education system in the country, to stay in state. And, it has potential to be an important factor in completion of a four-year degree.” An eligible student would receive free tuition his or her first two years at a community college through CCOG, and then the Garden State Guaranteed would cover the third and fourth years’ tuition at a state public college or university.

At a $50 million first-year price tag, the Garden State Guarantee is New Jersey’s largest college affordability investment in more than 10 years, and yet, as Smith Ellis noted, about one-tenth of 1% of Gov. Murphy’s $40.58 billion proposed FY2021 budget. She said it’s well worth the cost to further “invest in the state’s students and a higher education system we can be proud of.” (The governor’s proposed 2021 budget also earmarks an additional $1.5 million for the EOF to award about 20,000 students, while TAG amounts would remain at levels equal to those in 2020, according to the Higher Education department.)

How it will work: Under the Garden State Guarantee, money will be awarded to each public college based on the state’s outcomes-based funding rationale, which takes into account the number of federal Pell grant-qualifying students, and both the total degrees awarded and the number of degrees awarded to underrepresented ethnic and racial minority groups. It’s the proposed program’s funding mechanism — as an annual state budget item — that raises concern for some.

“I admire the Murphy administration for taking steps toward a more rational approach to higher education funding in New Jersey and identifying statewide higher education goals for access,” said Mike Klein, former executive director of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities and now the Richard P. Nathan Public Policy Fellow, Rockefeller Institute of Government, SUNY. “But to ensure these initiatives have long-lasting effect, they’ll need the force of law behind them so they are not jeopardized by the annual budget battles in New Jersey.”

Concerns about viability: It’s a concern shared by Darryl Greer, another former executive director of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities. “It’s a well-meaning plan to help college affordability and a flawed approach at financing universities in the long run,” he said, noting he wouldn’t be surprised if some college presidents oppose it quietly as the budget process evolves. “There is no guarantee for increased state funding to the universities to cover increasing costs of goods and services and state-negotiated labor contracts in future years. The budget approach and providing more financial aid to university students in the first two years are better looked at as separate but connected issues, not as a ‘free college’ approach.”

Rowan’s Houshmand has some funding-related reservations, as well. “We anticipate Rowan’s share of the Garden State Guarantee’s $50 million would be about $1.8 million,” he said. “I worry whether there’s enough support to fully fund the eligible deserving students at Rowan.” If not, he said, it’s possible Rowan would need to tap merit-based resources to meet the need.

A $50M ‘down payment’: Smith Ellis believes that the $50 million “down payment” can be a sustainable investment over time, much like CCOG, EOF and TAG. With about 18 months until the program’s anticipated launch, she is confident that’s enough time for a successful implementation, noting that CCOG was rolled out even faster. It will take continued conversations with college presidents and financial aid staff so that ultimately, the key stakeholders — students — can consider the Garden State Guarantee when making their higher education choice. “Ultimately, we’ll judge its success on whether we have more students enrolling in our state colleges and universities, earning their degrees and going on to quality jobs,” she said.