TRENTON — Two-thirds of the roughly 45,000 community-college students with incomes under $45,000 already don’t pay tuition or fees, but 15,000 do. That would change starting in January if Gov. Phil Murphy gets his way.

However, it’s far from clear that he will.

The Senate budget committee held a hearing Thursday to analyze Murphy’s proposed higher education budget, and a number of lawmakers – many of them Democrats – pushed back on the idea, which would cost $50 million the first year and at least four times that once fully in place.

Once fully phased in, the Community College Opportunity Grants would cover all community-college students regardless of income, said acting Higher Education Secretary Zakiya Smith Ellis. They would cover any tuition and fees not paid for by Pell Grants and Tuition Aid Grant awards.

“The governor had a desire to follow through on commitments that he had made in this area. This was probably the No. 1 commitment in the area of high education,” Ellis said.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, who has slowed down Ellis’ confirmation citing a lack of responsiveness to written questions, questioned the wisdom of $50 million for a new effort when the state doesn’t properly fund the programs it has now.

“I understand the politics of it. But there’s a reality,” Sweeney said. “We’re 48th in the nation in higher education funding, which is disgraceful.”

State Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, said it’s a noble cause but that a lot of details and changes would be needed before Democrats include it in the budget.

“You need to be out of pocket a little bit,” Sarlo said. “Even if it’s a payback over time or a loan, you need to have some incentives to stay there, work hard. It needs to be tied to achievements.”

The proposed program doesn’t include grade-point average or other requirements beyond showing academic progress.

State Sen. Samuel Thompson, R-Middlesex, said the grants could lead to an increase of students who otherwise wouldn’t enroll.

“And if they do bring in significant people like that, the question is do they have the capacity to handle it in terms of facility. Certainly they’d need more faculty and more staff,” Thompson said.

Ellis said that with that concern in mind, the budget includes $5 million in planning grants for community colleges so they can plan for the program’s impacts on enrollment.

Ellis said community colleges were selected for the program because they have always been lower tuition and accessible to anyone with a high school diploma or its equivalent.

“We don’t charge people to go to public high school and that we shouldn’t necessarily charge people to go to openly accessible community college,” Ellis said.

State Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, asked why a student from a family with an income under $45,000 would receive extra money to attend community college but not a four-year school.

“We are going to say that K-12 should be free, community colleges should be free,” Singleton said. “Then why not just take it the full step and say all public education, K through college graduation, should be free?”

It would seem the ultimate cost of the program would be more than $200 million.

There are 150,000 county college students and the $50 million allotment would help cover 15,000 of them, many of whom already receive some Pell and TAG grants.

Students with higher household incomes aren’t eligible for any need-based aid.

The average tuition and fees for a community college student is $4,310 a year, said David Socolow, executive director of the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistant Authority.

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

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