Murphy makes tuition-free community college a permanent reality

Any student with adjusted gross income of $65K or less will attend for free

Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation Friday morning that makes tuition-free community college a permanent reality for those who qualify — an estimated 50,000 students a year.

The Community College Opportunity Grant Program will allow any student with adjusted gross incomes of $65,000 or less to attend any New Jersey community college without tuition or educational fees. It is also fulfills a key and continuous talking point of Murphy’s since the day he announced his candidacy for governor.

“For far too long, higher education has been out of reach for countless New Jerseyans due to its high cost,” Murphy said. “Today’s bill signing underscores our continued commitment to college affordability, ensuring that our young people and working adults have the opportunity to earn post-secondary degrees and advance their promising careers.”

The program, which will be administered by the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, will provide last-dollar grants to eligible county college students for those tuition costs and fees not already covered by any other state, federal and institutional need-based grants and merit scholarships.

Students with adjusted gross incomes of $65,000 or less will be eligible to receive this financial grant for a total of five semesters. This legislation also directs the Legislature to appropriate funding for the “Student Success Incentive” to the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education, for distribution to each county college. This funding will be used to support outreach and student success initiatives to further the goals of the CCOG grant program.

Brian Bridges, secretary of higher education, said the bill is a victory for the state.

“Today represents a huge win for college affordability and a transformative moment in our state’s history. In the years to come, CCOG will continue offering thousands more eligible students equitable access to a college education for free,” he said. “To emerge stronger and fairer from the COVID-19 pandemic, we are investing in future generations today by expanding affordable options to ensure students’ lifelong success.”

The signing is the latest action by the Murphy administration toward tuition-free community college. The CCOG grant program was first enacted through budget language in the Fiscal Year 2019 appropriations act. The grant program received a $20 million appropriation in Fiscal Year 2019 and a $25 million appropriation in Fiscal Year 2020.

The appropriation to the grant program for the Fiscal Year 2020 three-month budget extension totaled $10 million and the appropriation in the Fiscal Year 2021 appropriations act for the nine-month period was also $10 million, making the total financial aid funding for that 12-month period $20 million. For the current Fiscal Year 2022 budget, the governor has proposed $27 million to support the CCOG grant program.

David Socolow, executive director of the HESAA, said the program is a huge help for students.

“New Jersey now sends a clear message: County college is tuition-free for students with family incomes of $65,000 or below,” he said. “Gov. Murphy has enabled HESAA to back up that promise by filling students’ remaining financial aid gaps with more than 25,000 Community College Opportunity Grants since the spring 2019 semester.

“The impact of this commitment reaches still further, by making an upfront, tuition-free price guarantee that enables tens of thousands of additional students to focus on their postsecondary education without concern about paying the tuition sticker price. Many students can now consider enrolling in college with full confidence that their entire county college tuition will be covered by the state of New Jersey. By raising awareness that college is more affordable, we can encourage more students to pursue courses of study that will enhance their lives and careers here in the Garden State.”

Aaron Fichtner, president of New Jersey Council of County Colleges, agreed.

“As a result of this investment, thousands of New Jerseyans are able to embark on career pathways, to prepare for jobs that pay family-supporting wages and to contribute directly to the state’s economic growth and recovery,” he said.

Chris Reber, president of Hudson County Community College, where the bill was signed, called it a “life-changing” measure.

CCOG is an investment in the people of our communities and their dreams,” he said. “The program is providing life-changing opportunities for students to acquire postsecondary educational credentials that open doors to fulfilling careers with family-sustaining wages.”