Of all the changes the Legislature made to the spending side of his proposed 2020 state budget, Gov. Phil Murphy bemoans none more vociferously than the reduction to the line item for the tuition-free community college program.

“It is so wildly popular and changes so many lives, I’m praying that folks wake up and understand that,” Murphy said Wednesday in a visit to Passaic County Community College in Paterson. “I mean this is stone-cold crazy stupid to not fund this program.”

Murphy campaigned on the idea of a universal program making the grants available for all community college students, but the money isn’t there for that. Instead it started in the spring semester and was made available to students whose families have $45,000 or less in adjusted gross income.

The current budget includes $20 million for students and $5 million in planning grants to colleges. Murphy proposed $58.5 million for Community College Opportunity Grants in his second budget, so it could apply to both semesters. It was to be narrowed in one way: Students enrolling straight out of high school would have to attend class full-time, 12 credits a semester.

“Folks who don’t get this aren’t paying attention. This is one of the biggest game-changers in this state in a long time,” Murphy said.

“It is probably right alongside expansion of pre-K, which is at the other, the front end of the educational system, as something that touches people deeply, where their lives are changed,” he said. “The only difference is when you’re 3 years old, you don’t know your life’s being changed. But when you’re 18 or 28, 38, 48, 58, 68, you know yourself that your life has been changed.”

The Legislature cut the appropriation to $30 million, including $25 million for grants to students and $5 million to colleges for outreach programs and other initiatives to support the program. It also kept part-time students eligible, included career and technical education programs, made costs for summer courses eligible and raised the income eligibility threshold to $65,000.

“I know that there’s a lot of support out there for this program because we’ve heard it," Higher Education Secretary Zakiya Smith Ellis said. "We know that the college presidents support it. We know the Legislature supports it because they put some money in there and then asked us to do more stuff. But we can’t do more stuff with less money."

“The Legislature – I’m appreciative of the fact that they are supportive of the program but added several different requirements but removed about half of the money from the program,” Smith Ellis said. “So those things don’t really go together.”

The changes made to the program’s eligibility requirements were requested by community college presidents in a letter to lawmakers. The reduction of the appropriation was not.

State Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, the Senate Higher Education Committee chairwoman, issued a statement in support of the Legislature’s budgetary decisions regarding the CCOG program. She didn’t address questions about how the $25 million would last for two semesters for a larger pool of students.

“Expanding the requirements for eligibility will allow even more students, young and old, the chance to continue their education without accruing crippling debt. This is a great program for New Jersey, and with this year’s changes it will become even better,” Cunningham said.

The Community College Opportunity Grant provides the funding needed, after all federal and state aid programs are applied for, to cover a student’s remaining tuition and fees. It was going to roll out at 13 of the 19 community colleges this past spring but was expanded because extra Pell Grant funding was received by students who hadn’t applied for that aid in the past.

“We were able to cover more ground than we ever thought we could,” Murphy said. “This notion of a last dollar reward means folks have to work hard to prove that they’ve exhausted every other avenue. … And that allowed us to squeeze more money out of the system.”

“I’ve heard so many students say the same thing: I didn’t think this was real. I got this email, and I thought it was a scam because who’s going to pay for our tuition and fees,” Smith Ellis said.

The average CCOG grant averaged more than $1,000 in the spring semester, with two-thirds of the award going to working adults, said David Socolow, executive director of the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority.

On top of that, Socolow said, there was an increase in the number of community college students receiving federal Pell Grants in the spring semester compared with the fall semester, rather than the typical 10 percent drop.

“Based on what we’ve learned in this one-semester pilot this spring, we are planning to expand CCOG to reach even more students next year using the funding recommended in the governor’s budget,” Socolow said.

“Our partners in the Legislature passed a budget that wants to expand eligibility for CCOG, but it is missing sufficient funding for all those new students who we all want to help,” Socolow said.

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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