Menendez touts bill that would help college affordability

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Sen. Bob Menendez addressed a roomful of students at Union County College in Elizabeth and outlined a bill he’s co-sponsoring that would lift the burden of tuition and fees. It’s called the America’s College Promise Act.

“I believe it’s time we make free community college a reality in this country,” said Menendez. “The legislation creates a $3 to $1 federal match for states that make community college tuition-free, and we should be on our march for making that happen.”

Menendez estimated the bill could save a full-time student an average of $3,500 a year in tuition, before financial aid even kicks in. Menendez said it won’t be income-based. Students would just need to live in the county and keep up their grades.

“They would have to maintain a certain average while they’re in school. It’s not a free ride. You got to work for it,” said Menendez.

The bill could benefit an estimated 9 million full-time American county college students, 150,000 in New Jersey. At Union County College annual tuition and fees cost more than $5,800 a year.

“Investing in community colleges like UCC is a smart thing to do because they’re accountable, they’re accredited and they’re responsive to the needs of our diverse community. Our bill would encourage more states to follow New Jersey’s lead, and make sure students who complete two-year degrees are able to seamlessly transfer to four-year institutions like Rutgers and TCNJ,” said Menendez.

“I like that. I think it’s a very good idea. It’s about time they invest in students,” student Philomene said. “I had to take a loan to cover my books.”

“My parents don’t have a good job, so having this opportunity to have money to go to school is a really good opportunity,” Marie D’haiti said.

The bill does not have bipartisan support. Free community college claims a prominent place on progressive Democrats’ political agendas. Gov. Phil Murphy just proposed spending $45 million as a down payment on his three year, $200 million plan that state Republicans consider unaffordable. But Murphy’s undeterred.

“I’m a big believer that education ought to be a right, not a privilege,” Murphy said.

But Murphy’s plan would provide so-called “last dollar” grants that cover any costs not already paid by Pell Grants, TAG awards or other funding sources. The Menendez bill would require a “first dollar” investment, aides explained, so that states would cover 25 percent of costs right off the top.

“For every dollar that the state would put up, the federal government would put up three. That means that New Jersey taxpayers would ultimately pay less as a result of it,” said Menendez.

Without commenting on their plans’ differences, Murphy’s press secretary said the governor “… applauds Senator Menendez for his work to secure federal funding for New Jersey students. By expanding opportunities for our children to obtain a college education, we create a future where more New Jersey citizens can join the middle class and contribute to our economy.”

It’s unknown how much will the Menendez bill will cost at this point. The bill has yet to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office.