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What the Biden administration can learn from New Jersey about free community college

 
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02/26/2021 05:01 AM EST

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Friday will sign into law a tuition-free community college program its architects say should become a national model.

The Community College Opportunity Grant program is inclusive of all types of students — traditional college-age and adult learners, documented or undocumented, part-time or full-time. It covers not only tuition, but many of the required fees that can run up a student’s bill. It’s not restricted by school or course type and does not mandate a certain grade point average.

And it’s changed thousands of students’ lives.

As President Joe Biden plans to roll out his own tuition-free community college policy across the country, New Jersey officials say they have the blueprint.

“We are the most progressive free community college program in the nation,” Zakiya Smith Ellis, Murphy’s chief policy adviser, said in an interview.

Smith Ellis, a former senior policy adviser for higher education in the Obama White House and the former secretary of higher education in New Jersey, helped craft the CCOG program. She said she drew heavily from her national education policy experience and lessons learned from other states in building New Jersey’s program, which she says is worth replicating across the country.

Though Biden has committed to his campaign promise of free community college, national education experts have raised doubts about whether under-resourced community colleges are the best places to invest in sending students.

Critics say a massive influx of students nationwide could hobble the system, there’s still an outstanding issue with transferring community college class credits to four-year universities, and it’s exceedingly difficult to determine how successful the programs are in directing students to their career fields or to four-year degrees.

In addition to signing the CCOG into law, Murphy has also proposed increasing community college funding along with an ambitious two-year tuition-free program for four-year universities as a way to channel students through the system.

CCOG began as a pilot in the spring 2018 semester with a budget of $25 million, covering students at the $45,000 adjusted gross income threshold. It was initially available at 13 of New Jersey’s 19 county colleges. It later expanded to all 19 schools and to students at the $65,000 income threshold.

It’s a last-dollar grant program, meaning it acts as a gap-filler after all other federal and state assistance sources are exhausted.

According to state data, more than 10,100 students received over $14 million in CCOG money for the fall 2020 semester. Officials estimate that by the end of the spring semester, they will have spent $27 million on the program this year — the same amount Murphy included in the budget he proposed this week.

New Jersey is not alone in offering a tuition-free “college promise” program. But its law will have three characteristics that set it apart from similar programs nationwide — including the Tennessee Promise program and New York’s Excelsior Scholarship.

While other programs cater to traditional students straight out of high school, the CCOG law will include language designed to encourage adult learners to come back and complete their degrees at county colleges.

New Jersey’s law will also cover both part-time and full-time students as long as they’re taking six or more credits. As a result, more than 55 percent of all students who receive CCOG are working adults, according to state figures.

Third, New Jersey’s program covers not only tuition but also most student fees, including technology fees, facility fees, student activity fees and lab fees. It also covers every area of study — it’s not restricted to certain types of classes or certain occupations or training programs.

David Socolow, executive director of the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, said part of the program’s success is its name and promise.

Socolow, who co-built the CCOG program with Smith Ellis, said that when a promise is made to low-income students that they can attend community college tuition-free, they are more likely to apply for financial aid through the FAFSA.

Without that guarantee, students and families are often deterred by the sticker price on colleges’ websites which, at $7,000 a year on average for New Jersey‘s county colleges, can be a barrier many students cannot overcome.

With the promise that as long as their income is less than $65,000 they can attend for free, more students apply for financial aid and many of those find that their needs are met by federal money or by other state grants or scholarships. In that way, the promise and the publicity of CCOG gets more students enrolled without the program necessarily funding it.

Though it’s since received near-universal approval in New Jersey, CCOG was a political challenge for Smith Ellis and Murphy to sell.

Even though New Jersey is a Democratic stronghold — with majorities in both Legislative houses and the governor’s office — Smith Ellis said there was a time she thought the idea was dead on arrival.

“I wasn’t sure we would get legislative buy-in,” she said.

Senate President Steve Sweeney and several other prominent Democratic lawmakers were opposed to the idea when it was first put before them.

Lawmakers thought that with all of the other scholarship and aid programs the state was running, students could already largely attend community college tuition-free without establishing an entirely new program.

What’s more, New Jersey has struggled with a remediation problem. Many county college students — especially those from low-income households — have found themselves stuck in high-school level courses and have had trouble matriculating.

After the pilot was rolled out in the spring, with belated fanfare and short-term notification for students, CCOG only spent a small portion of the initial $25 million it was allocated.

Lawmakers were still not convinced.

Over time, the program has gained momentum and earned lawmakers’ confidence necessary to pass a bill that would make the program a permanent fixture in state law. County college presidents have celebrated it as well.

Socolow and Smith Ellis said they hope the federal government will look at what the states are doing and bolster these programs not just through additional tuition money but with wraparound support services to help retain students and cover extraneous costs like books and childcare.

Murphy says this is just the beginning. He’s proposed an ambitious partner program called the Garden State Guarantee that would allow low-income students to attend their first two years at four-year public colleges and universities tuition free.

Brian Bridges, New Jersey’s newly confirmed secretary of higher education, will be leading the state forward into what he says will be a new era of progressive college affordability policy in the state.

Bridges, a former executive at the United Negro College Fund, said the chance to lead CCOG and the Garden State Guarantee is what drew him to New Jersey from Washington.

“What we’re doing here in New Jersey is a demonstration of how you can serve those who are most underserved with your policies,” Bridges said in an interview. “Good ideas are often implemented through struggle. ... Those kinds of policies become transformative in a way that years later people forget the fight that was necessary to implement it.”

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