Debt relief: Mercer County CC has been model at getting federal relief funds to students

Mercer County Community College is putting federal money directly into the hands of its students — by way of reducing and eliminating debt. And it’s not waiting around to do so.

The school announced that, over the past 16 months, it has forgiven nearly $5 million in qualified balances such as tuition, fees and other costs to students enrolled during the pandemic.

At a time when the disbursement of so much federal aid has been slow, MCCC officials said they were determined to help those in need as quickly as possible. The college received an initial round of $2 million in funding from the CARES Act and went right to work.

CCM’s goal: Give away $10M

The County College of Morris, like nearly all of the state’s county colleges, also has been getting aid to its students. CCM officials said they distributed $3.75 million in the first two rounds of relief during the pandemic – and have distributed $2.9 million more in the third round, for a total of approximately $6.65 million.

School officials said the money helped their most financially at-risk students.

CCM said it still has $3.6M remaining for students to apply.

“We are so grateful we have been able to distribute this funding to help students to keep moving forward with their higher education during these very difficult times,” CCM President Anthony Iacono said. “With this money, so many students will be able to fulfill their dreams for a better life, helping not only themselves, but also their families and communities.”

“Mercer received the federal funding around the middle of May 2020 and, within 10 days, we had checks in the mail to students,” school Controller Mark Banyacski said.

“Mercer has helped literally thousands of overburdened students who were carrying tuition debt and other college-related expenses on their shoulders during COVID-19.”

Since the CARES Act, MCCC has received two more rounds of federal funds — the latest through the American Rescue Plan — and has dispersed another $3 million in debt forgiveness.

The funds were earmarked to pay expenses from the spring, summer and fall semesters of 2020 and the spring and summer semesters of 2021.

Debt forgiveness at Mercer is not based on academic excellence or performance. The monetary assistance is targeted to those students who demonstrate exceptional need.

Savita Bambhrolia, dean of student enrollment and student experience at MCCC, said paying down the debt is an investment in the future — of the students.

“The fund disbursements help encourage Mercer students to stay in school during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “We want to support our students so they can focus and feel confident about earning their degrees during these difficult times.”

More student debt forgiveness is on the way at MCCC, according to college officials — about $6 million worth.

And Bambhrolia said it will be for more than just tuition and books.

“The process requires an application that takes into account not only tuition and fees, but expenses such as food, housing, technology, transportation, child care and medical expenses,” she said.