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NJ Budget Bonus: Guarantee More College Kids Free Tuition
6/28/2021 | Editorial

All kids in New Jersey will now have access to four years of college under the budget deal Gov. Phil Murphy just struck with state legislators, a significant expansion of opportunity for lower income people. In effect, this extends a K-16 universal education, a key step toward a world in which college is the norm. 

Tuition-free college isn't as costly as you might think, and could be life-changing for thousands of needy students. Our state already offers them two years of free tuition and fees at community colleges, but this would extend that promise to an additional two years at a four-year public university. They could go to community college, then transfer to Rutgers and graduate for free. 

Families need to make less than $65,000 annually to qualify for the state help, but families earning slightly more can get help directly from the colleges, which offer a sliding scale of additional tuition discounts. And for the taxpayer, offering "free tuition" isn't that expensive because students will still need to apply for help from other state and federal aid programs first. This is a wholesale promise to plug any remaining gaps, what's known as a "last dollar" program – or, as Murphy dubbed it, the "Garden State Guarantee." 

The budget allocates $50 million for this, along with another $35 million in tuition aid for low-income families through the Tuition Aid Grant Program (TAG). It also offers help on saving for college to aid ambitious families, with tax deductions and state matching funds for investments in the state's 529 college saving plan. 

Just broadcasting the message that tuition will be free could inspire many more to enroll, who might otherwise write off college as unaffordable. In Tennessee, which had a similar "last dollar" program, more students "absolutely" enrolled, said Sandy Baum, an expert on higher education at the Urban Institute. In the first year of the program, called Tennessee Promise, 4,000 more students joined the freshman class – an increase of nearly 25 percent. 

"It woke them up to the reality that, oh, they could afford to go," Baum said. 

There are some potential pitfalls, she added: Students who start in community college are more likely to drop out than similar students who start at four-year colleges, studies have found. So we also need to ensure that community colleges have enough money to support a growing number of students and can help them transfer to four-year colleges. And it's important to remember that "tuition-free" is not the same as free – students will have to borrow or come up with money for living expenses, housing, transportation and books. 

That's still a struggle, overlooked by those who claim that low income students who benefit from tuition-free programs don't have any personal skin in paying for college. But this is a welcome step toward giving more people access to college, a top priority if we want an educated workforce. A high school degree isn't enough for most jobs anymore. 

There are countless benefits to ensuring that more low-income students can get a college degree: They'll be better able to support themselves throughout their lives, contribute more to the labor force, pay more taxes and be less likely to rely on unemployment or other safety net programs. And since low income households bore the brunt of the job losses in the pandemic, this is a timely investment. Now, more than ever, students need to know that even if their families can't afford it, New Jersey will help them get that degree.