Murphy’s tuition-free plan challenged in Assembly Committee

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

New Jersey’s Acting Secretary for Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis praised the governor’s plan of tuition-free community college before the Assembly Budget Committee.

“By 2025, it is projected that 68 percent of the jobs in the state will demand some form of postsecondary education. And easing the tuition burden so that they can focus on being successful in school and earn a credential that helps them get a good job is a win for the student and for the state of New Jersey,” Smith Ellis said.

Gov. Phil Murphy has put $50 million in his budget to make it happen. As explained to lawmakers, it’s for families earning $45,000 or less. It would cover the gap between students who apply for and get financial aid and the cost of tuition, and it would cover tuition even for students who don’t apply for fear of not getting it. The administration estimates the plan could benefit 15,000 students.

“One central element of building a stronger and fairer New Jersey is making postsecondary education more affordable and accessible for our state’s residents,” said David Socolow, executive director of the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority.

Lawmakers had plenty of questions.

“Do you think the financial barrier is what stops kids from going to college?” asked Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, who chairs the committee.

“I think there are a variety of hardships that students face and it’s not just all financial,” Smith Ellis replied.

Assembly Republican Whip Nancy Munoz had a list of unrelenting questions, hinting that students should apply first for financial aid before qualifying for free tuition.

“Should there be some skin in the game at all?” Munoz asked. “To that end, are they going to be markers on how well you have to do in order to receive that money? And if you don’t do well, will you have to pay it back?”

“We have defined it as continued satisfactory academic progress required to say in the program,” Socolow said.

“Have you defined that?” asked Munoz.

“That’s defined by the colleges and that’s in our regulations,” said Socolow.

“Why did you choose it to be a two-year college? Does that send a certain message?” continued Munoz.

“This program isn’t about discouraging people from going to where they really want to go to get them to go to community college otherwise,” Smith Ellis said.

Both Democrats and Republicans wonder why the administration is not taking the money for free community college and simply roll it into other programs that have had success in getting students to afford college.

“To make sure that those students don’t have the challenge of tuition and fees. I think that psychologically, it makes a big difference to be able to say to people this is not going to be a barrier,” Smith Ellis said.

“The message of free has a psychological impact. It encourages people to do it,” Socolow said.

The governor’s $50 million plan includes $5 million for the state’s 19 community colleges to coordinate the tuition-free program with the administration, money the Republican whip hinted was excessive and should require an audit.