What to expect from Murphy’s free community college plan

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

Gov. Phil Murphy wanted $50 million to get free community college off the ground. The Legislature gave him a budget with $5 million. Eventually they compromised on $25 million.

This week, the state launched a pilot program that will make community college free for hundreds more students in the spring of 2019.

Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis and David Socolow, who runs the New Jersey Higher Education Assistance Authority, are jointly managing the initiative.

The state’s 19 community colleges, sometimes called county colleges, have until Aug. 31 to apply to have their students included in a grant program. And all 19 are eligible for planning grants to ready their campuses for the new program.

“All 19 county colleges that apply and submit an application will receive a planning grant from us of at least $250,000. That will help them think about how to serve students well, how to ensure that they graduate, and how to help us estimate costs for future years,” Smith Ellis said.

A student’s adjusted gross income has to be under $45,000 to qualify. That’s family income if the student is still a dependent.

Some critics have suggested that federal Pell Grants already cover that demographic and this will cost the state unnecessarily. Not so, say the Murphy higher education officials.

“We looked at every student, 107,000 students who attended county college in New Jersey in the spring of 2017. And of those, 70 percent were already receiving enough aid, if they earned under 45,000, to go to college for free, but 30 percent were not. It’s that gap, for some of them $1,000 a semester, $1,500 a semester, that wasn’t paid for that we can fill that gap with this program. This is a last-dollar program, so it supplements all the other aid that students have to apply for first,” said Socolow.

Murphy has been talking about free community college since his days as a gubernatorial candidate. Republicans, like Sen. Minority Leader Tom Kean, say the state can’t afford it.

“My concern about free is nothing is free. This budget increased spending and taxes by 8 percent, so they had over a billion dollar tax increase on everything from income, to Uber and Lyft and other sharing economy issues to go on something that is both unsustainable and unaffordable over time,” Kean said.

“I’m excited about the program. I think that this will give us a chance really to work with the colleges to see how best to roll this out everywhere,” said Smith Ellis.

To apply, a student need only fill out the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, most already fill out. The average cost of community college these days is about $2,500 to $3,000 per semester.

Murphy has sometimes been mocked for his ambition to provide free community college for all. His argument is that today’s workforce requires some kind of postsecondary training or credential if the state is to move forward.