An Assembly committee is considering tuition-relief legislation that has been called the cornerstone of a 20-bill higher education reform package.

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The measure, co-sponsored by Assemblyman Joe Cryan (D-Union), was designed to reduce the cost of college in New Jersey and incentivize institutions of higher learning to graduate their students in four years.

"Any full-time student entering one of New Jersey's four-year independent or public higher education institutions would have the same tuition and the same fees for nine continuous semesters as they attend school," Cryan said. "In other words, when you start as a freshman, you'd pay the same both in tuition and fees as you would hopefully when you graduate."

The average tuition increase over the past five years is nearly 20 percent for four-year schools and community colleges, according to recent statistics released by the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education. The four-year graduation rate at many New Jersey schools is less than 20 percent and in a small number of cases it is less than 10 percent.

"This, in essence, is a 20 percent savings to families," Cryan said. "Quite frankly, we have all talked about how higher ed has become unaffordable."

Florida had a similar law and at least two other states, Illinois and Texas, have approved the same kind of legislation. Dozens of colleges and universities across the country have some type of tuition freeze or lock policy already in place.

"I'd love to say it's original; it's not," Cryan said. "It's a best practice."

If the bill is enacted, Cryan predicts it will lessen the state's so-called "brain drain" by giving New Jersey institutions a competitive advantage with out-of-state schools that continue to woo our best and brightest.

Opponents claim the legislation is unfair because state aid to colleges and universities from year to year is too unpredictable, and already stuck at 1990s levels. Other critics said institutions would simply pad their tuition and fees before a student enrolls, which could eliminate most if not all of the savings.