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On Tuition Aid, Murphy Gets Good Grades | Editorial
11/1/2021 |
Star-Ledger Editorial Board

When Gov. Phil Murphy was running for office, he pledged to make a college education more affordable in New Jersey. Now his Republican challenger, Jack Ciattarelli, is attacking him on this, charging that he’s helped only the poor.

“The fact is, hard-working, middle-class people still do not qualify for free community college or reduced tuition,” Ciattarelli’s campaign spokesperson said.

It’s true that Murphy has done the most for the neediest students who face the greatest financial barriers to completing college. But he includes meaningful help for the middle-class as well.

Like many other states, New Jersey has long been starving higher education of funding. Murphy has no control over tuition costs; those decisions are made by colleges. But the amount of state aid they get affects the level of tuition.

When he took office, Murphy increased this fundamental aid to colleges modestly, by about 80 million. But the best thing he’s done is increase the amount of financial aid available for low-income students.

He boosted New Jersey’s TAG program – which offers some of the most generous need-based state grants in the nation – by $35 million. And along with state legislators, Murphy created a new program to offer four years of free tuition for families earning under $65,000 annually.

That’s almost half of all community college students. Starting in the Fall of 2022, these needy students can do two years at community college, then transfer to complete their degree at Rutgers or another public school, all without tuition costs.

The “free tuition” isn’t that expensive for taxpayers, because students must first apply for other state or federal aid. It’s a “last dollar” program to plug any remaining gaps – the “Garden State Guarantee.”

But the middle class won’t be cut out, as Ciattarelli charges: Students from families earning more than $65,000 annually will be offered tuition discounts, based on a sliding scale.

Other new Murphy programs also benefit middle class families. Like a new $10,000 tax deduction for annual tuition costs against state income tax, for anyone whose family income is $200,000 or less – which is most New Jersey families.

He also set up a tax deduction of $10,000 a year for money invested in 529 plans for college savings. You can start one of these for as little as $25, and the money you put in each year can be deducted off your state income tax. And for families earning 75,000 or less, Murphy created an incentive: The state will match, dollar for dollar, up to the first $750 you put into a 529 account. Put in $750, and you’ll have $1,500 saved for college.

These are clearly attempts to help middle income people; the idea of 529 plans is that they’re tax free, which isn’t much help if you’re poor and don’t pay income tax. And Murphy shouldn’t have to apologize for his programs to help lower income people. Any benefits he’s offering them still hardly close the gap between their resources and those available to the middle class.

Obviously, college remains expensive, and that’s not going to change overnight, notes Sandy Baum, an expert on higher education at the Urban Institute. “But these are certainly consistent steps in the right direction,” she said. Murphy has moved us further toward his goal of making college a reality for as many people as possible.