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N.J. Invests In Higher Education To Make College More Affordable | Opinion
9/25/2021 | General
By: Brian K. Bridges and David J. Socolow

The rising cost of earning a college degree was a problem well before the COVID-19 pandemic. New Jersey is easing that burden by investing in an innovative College Promise program, expanding Tuition Aid Grants (TAG), and launching college savings and other affordability initiatives to help families and reduce the cost of student loan debt.

To build a stronger and fairer New Jersey, the Murphy administration has prioritized expanding access and affordability of a postsecondary education to ensure that all who aspire to earn a college degree have equal access to a high-quality education. Working in close partnership with our Legislature, the administration has added new supports for students to pursue their life and career dreams, delivering the educated, skilled workforce that New Jersey’s economy needs.

One of the critical pillars of our College Promise program is the Community College Opportunity Grant (CCOG), which is helping tens of thousands of students by offering tuition-free college. First introduced as a pilot in 2019, this program was codified into law by Gov. Phil Murphy earlier this year. Students who once thought college was beyond their financial reach can now earn an associate’s degree debt-free.

We are building on this success by creating a new four-year, tuition-free pathway to a bachelor’s degree, through the Garden State Guarantee (GSG) included in the 2022 budget. Together, the CCOG and GSG comprise New Jersey’s College Promise, ensuring that students from families with adjusted gross incomes up to $65,000 will not pay tuition and fees throughout two years at their local community college and if they transfer, during their third and fourth years at any public four-year college or university. Many students from families with incomes above $65,000 will also benefit from the GSG’s sliding scale of guaranteed tuition discounts in their third and fourth years of enrollment.

Through New Jersey’s College Promise, we’re making the net price of college clear to students and their families upfront before they enroll — allowing students to focus on their studies, take on less student debt, and reduce the time it takes to complete their degree.

New Jersey’s financial aid programs help students persist to graduation; researchers have found that eligible students who receive more money from New Jersey’s need-based TAG program are more likely to graduate on time. More than one-third of New Jersey college students receive TAG and remain eligible year-to-year by making satisfactory academic progress. Governor Murphy and the Legislature provided a historic increase in TAG funding for the current 2021-22 academic year, significantly boosting the dollar value of these grants for all eligible students.

By investing in student financial aid, New Jersey makes college more accessible and affordable, which is essential to addressing the equity gaps that prevent students from low-income families and underrepresented groups from entering and thriving in college. New Jersey is also supporting immigrant families by providing state financial aid to eligible undocumented students who grew up in the Garden State, graduated from a New Jersey high school and now attend college in-state.

But we know that it takes more than tuition assistance to get students through to graduation, especially for those who face the greatest barriers. To meet these needs, New Jersey has expanded the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) for students from educationally — and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. This vital program now supports nearly 15,000 students at 41 New Jersey colleges and universities via support services that go beyond financial aid, including tutoring, counseling, summer and winter sessions, and leadership development. And this year alone, we allocated nearly $30 million in federal funding to colleges and universities for student support initiatives, including Hunger-Free Campus grants, child care, and mental health services.

To further assist New Jerseyans in avoiding student debt, the new College Affordability Act includes incentives for families to save for college. With an initial deposit of only $25, families can open an NJBEST 529 College Savings account that grows tax-free. Now, qualifying New Jersey residents can receive a dollar-for-dollar state matching grant up to the first $750 they contribute to open a new account. The law also makes up to $10,000 in contributions to an NJBEST account deductible from New Jersey state income taxes. Student beneficiaries of NJBEST accounts can also receive a scholarship of up to $3,000 toward educational expenses at an in-state higher education institution.

At the same time, New Jersey is assisting residents with current student loans through a new tax deduction, low-cost refinancing, and affordable repayment options for New Jersey College Loans to Assist State Students (NJCLASS) borrowers. The College Affordability Act makes up to $2,500 in principal and interest paid on an NJCLASS loan deductible from state income taxes. NJCLASS now offers low-cost refinancing for pre-existing student loans, cutting their interest rates to as low as 2.99%. And for borrowers having difficulty making payments, the Repayment Assistance Program and the Household Income Affordable Repayment Plan are now available to all borrowers with standard NJCLASS loans.

New Jersey has significantly increased our investments in higher education, which will spur innovation by making a postsecondary degree more accessible and affordable. By helping more students successfully pursue career paths in our innovation economy, these bold initiatives will support an equitable and inclusive economic future for all New Jerseyans.

Dr. Brian K. Bridges is New Jersey’s Secretary of Higher Education.

David J. Socolow is the executive director of the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA).