New Jersey lawmakers on Monday advanced a series of measures designed to make college a more affordable route for students, both up front and on the back end.

It's the first set of bills crafted in response to recommendations made two years ago by the state's bipartisan College Affordability Study Commission, according to Mila Jasey, chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee.

Two of the measures aim to ensure that students avoid earning credits beyond what's necessary to earn a degree — one requiring that public institutions cap the credit count at 120 for four-year baccalaureate degrees, and that county colleges cap the count at 60 for an associate's degree, and the other establishing a campaign designed to educate students and their families that a student should take no less than 30 credits per year in order to graduate.

“Combined, these bills both inform students and their families of what it takes to graduate in four years and asks institutions to be mindful of ensuring it is possible for students to earn a degree in four years,” Jasey (D-Essex) said in a news release. “Which will ultimately save on tuition costs, resulting in less debt and less stress.”

An additional measure would permit the establishment of "three plus one" programs where students can complete three academic years at a county college and gain automatic admission in the fourth year to a partnering four-year school. The bill states that participating students would not jeopardize their eligibility for scholarships or state tuition aid grants.

Such a partnership is already in place between Rowan College at Burlington County and Rowan University. At the end of 2018, bachelor's degrees will be awarded to 20 or so students who spent three full academic years on the RCBC campus, then completed their education with Rowan University faculty.

Since January 2017, about 850 students have committed to the program — the only one operating in New Jersey.

Acting RCBC President Michael Cioce said "three plus one" students can expect to save at least $75,000 compared to their peers who attend a typical four-year institution, when including housing and meals.

3+1 Day - Rowan College at Burlington County
RBCB Acting President Michael Cioce celebrates "3+1" day.

"Just because it's low cost doesn't mean that students are going to be necessarily lining up," Cioce told New Jersey 101.5. "But I think that the one-two punch of a low-cost, high-quality degree program is why this has been resonating with residents of Burlington County and the region as well."

Rowan College at Gloucester County will begin offering third-year courses this fall, also in partnership with Rowan University.

"I think anything that helps address college affordability in the state is something that schools need to be looking at," Cioce said. "The reality is not every school necessarily has a senior institution partner that's willing to partner with them and share curriculum."

Addressing the "unreasonable" price of college textbooks, lawmakers also approved a measure designed to expand the use of open textbooks, which are essentially free, and digital learning materials.

A plan to do so would have to be submitted by each institution to the Secretary of Higher Education. And every year, the secretary would submit a report detailing which institutions are offering open textbooks.

“The ever-increasing prices of college textbooks are simply becoming unreasonable,” Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin (D-Middlesex) said in a news release. “By implementing open textbooks in college courses, students will save a significant amount of money as well as lower both the amount of and the stresses of debt after college.”

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