New Jersey could be on the cusp of widening an initiative that would help cover the cost of attaining a post-secondary degree, a step several states and individual higher education institutions have taken in recent years to make college more affordable.
The measure has the potential to change the lives of thousands of low-income students across the state, especially as families continue to cope with financial strains caused or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A proposal in the governor’s 2022 budget would help pay for tuition and fees for two years at any of New Jersey’s four-year public colleges or universities for students with household incomes of $65,000 or less. The average annual tuition at a public four-year institution in New Jersey is $13,963 for an in-state full-time student, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Gov. Phil Murphy would allocate $50 million of taxpayer money to fund the program, but that could change as lawmakers have until July 1 to approve or amend the proposed spending plan.
The financial aid program, officially called the Garden State Guarantee, would expand on the state’s Community College Opportunity Grant, and similar to that program, pay for the balance of tuition and fees that remains after eligible students’ needs-based grants and scholarships are applied.
The community college program, which was implemented in 2019 and signed into law earlier this year, is also open to students with household earnings of $65,000 or less. Murphy’s proposed spending plan would allocate $27 million to continue that program.
The average cost for tuition and fees at a public two-year college in New Jersey is $4,715, according to federal data.
Students could potentially qualify for both programs and have four years of college paid off.
“This is a life-changing opportunity,” said state Higher Education Secretary Brian Bridges, “particularly as our economy rebounds and we look to our students to help grow our workforce.”
Bridges discussed the proposed initiative with current college students at Montclair State University last week as part of a series of roundtable discussions he’s hosting to promote the program.
“I, like many other New Jersey students, was a first-generation college student,” Bridges said. “Through the Garden State Guarantee, we want all students across the state to know that they can afford college.”
College enrollment declined nationally last year and fewer students have applied for federal financial aid this year, signalling a continued decline in enrollment since the pandemic emerged. Some graduating seniors are opting for a gap year or putting college on hold, discouraged by the high cost of tuition, fees, books, and campus housing.
“A lot of us are scared to even apply for college, not because we don’t think we’re going to be successful or that we don’t deserve a higher education. But because it’s not affordable,” said Elizabeth Moyeno, an incoming graduate student at Montclair State University who spoke during the live-streamed discussion. “Though we’ve been resilient through a pandemic...what deters us and what turns people away is whether or not it’s actually accessible.”
The enrollment decline has disproportionately affected students of color and low-income students. In Newark, where most students are Black and Hispanic from low-income families, college enrollment among graduating seniors dropped 9 percentage points last fall from the year before, compared to a drop of 5 percentage points statewide, state data shows.
But last-dollar programs like the Garden State Guarantee and Community College Opportunity Grant could help reverse that trend. Enrollment through the Community College Opportunity Grant has increased by more than 140% since spring of 2019, according to Murphy’s budget statement.
About 13,000 students statewide could qualify for the Garden State Guarantee, Bridges said. If the allocation gets approved by lawmakers later this month, the program would take effect in the fall of 2022.
The Garden State Guarantee was previously recommended in the 2021 budget before the pandemic threat surfaced. Murphy’s office cut the program from the revised budget last year because of the “fiscal uncertainty posed by the pandemic,” according to an email from the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education.
At the roundtable, when asked what it would personally mean to have two years of tuition and fees covered at a four-year state institution, some students said it would give them more time to study instead of trying to make ends meet.
“I worked two jobs that summer to make sure I had the finances to go to school in the fall. And then, I worked in the fall to make sure that I had enough money to go to school in the spring,” said Karla Farfan Miguel, a Lakewood native and senior at Montclair State University. “And that’s the way I’ve been working at it since I’ve been here.”