New Jersey considers expanding free college to 4-year schools

Dive Brief: 

  • New Jersey lawmakers are considering whether to expand its free college program to include two years of tuition at the state’s public four-year institutions for students from families earning less than $65,000. 

  • Gov. Phil Murphy outlined the plan in his 2022 budget proposal, which asks for $50 million to fund the program. State lawmakers have until July 1 to approve or change the spending proposal. 

  • New Jersey already provides two years of free community college tuition to certain students. It is one of several states that are considering launching or expanding free college programs. 

Dive Insight: 

Murphy signed a bill earlier this year making permanent New Jersey’s Community College Opportunity Grant Program, which covers two years of tuition and fees at any of the state’s community colleges for students with family incomes of $65,000 or less. 

The program is last dollar, meaning it covers the remaining tuition and fees after all other federal, state and institutional financial aid has been applied. It is also open to both recent high school graduates and older students, so long as they complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or similar state form, and meet other eligibility requirements. 

The new proposal would establish a similar program for four-year colleges. However, it would only be open to full-time students, while part-time students are eligible for the community college grants, a spokesperson for the state’s higher education office said in an email. 

It also comes with a higher price tag. The governor’s budget would allocate $27 million to continue the free community college program and nearly double that to establish the version for four-year institutions. 

Students would be able to potentially cover four years of tuition through the programs if they started at a community college and transferred to a four-year institution, the spokesperson said. 

However, some advocacy groups say programs like those established and proposed in New Jersey don’t go far enough. The Education Trust notes that many free college programs don’t cover living costs, which can be as much or more than tuition for students attending public colleges. 

Murphy first pitched the idea more than a year ago in his 2021 budget proposal, but he pulled back the request due to the financial challenges of the pandemic, Chalkbeat reported. 

New Jersey isn’t the only state to expand free college during the pandemic. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation in April 2020 to create a program giving free community college tuition to residents ages 25 and older. The program drew 70,000 applicants in a matter of weeks. And Virginia established a program in March making community college tuition-free for low- and middle-income students pursuing high-demand fields.

President Joe Biden has also asked Congress to allocate $109 billion to make two years of a degree or credential at a community college free, including for unauthorized immigrants. His plan would also use $39 billion to cover two years of tuition at four-year, minority-serving schools.

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