Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy unveiled a workforce development plan Monday that includes free community college within four years.

Murphy also called for teaching computer coding to all public school students, expanding apprenticeship programs and focusing on attracting businesses in highly technical industries like clean energy.

But it’s the plan to end tuition for New Jersey residents at community colleges that will probably get the most attention. He has discussed it before but never attached a projected cost.

“I’m committed to making community college tuition free for all New Jerseyans,” Murphy said. “That won’t happen overnight. But if we grow our economy and prudently manage our finances, we will get there sooner rather than later.”

Murphy estimated at the news conference that it would cost $400 million once fully phased in, though his campaign later lowered that to $200 million.

A spokesman for Republican gubernatorial nominee Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno said Murphy’s college proposal joins a list of others that will cost so much it will require broad-based tax increases.

“Insinuating that it is 'free' is a slap in the face to the hardworking taxpayers in New Jersey,” said spokesman Ricky Diaz.

Murphy said “this won’t be as costly as many critics might have you believe” because of the level of federal funding already received by community colleges.

“If you look at a $35 billion budget, which is what we have, and you look at the impact you can make with that investment, it’s an overwhelming return and high priority,” Murphy said.

In lowering the estimate, Murphy’s campaign cited a Campaign for Free College Tuition report that pegged the cost at $197.5 million. However, that number was for the first year only and assumes the program would be phased in and only apply to the incoming class initially.

It would then have to be doubled to also cover the second year of the two-year community college, which returns the estimate close to Murphy’s initial ballpark figure.

Four states currently provide free community college to their residents: New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Tennessee.

Around 152,000 students were enrolled in the 19 community colleges in New Jersey last year, and 98 percent of them were from New Jersey.

It includes around 72,000 full-time students, whose average tuition and fees are around $4,700, and around 78,500 part-time students, whose costs average a little under $2,000.

Hypothetically, if the full tab for all the New Jersey resident students were paid for by the state, and no additional students enrolled, the cost would be around $480 million. But that overstates the number because it ignores that more than half the students receive federal tuition assistance and around 20 percent receive state aid that would be redirected into this program.

Murphy was joined for the news conference by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker outside a Mercer County Community College building in Trenton. Booker said Murphy would be a better manager to execute an economic plan than Gov. Chris Christie has been.

“This is not a knock on him, but these aren’t original ideas. Other states are doing it, and the question is:  Why aren’t we doing it here?” Booker said.

Earlier Monday, Murphy was endorsed by former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley. They appeared together in Princeton at Tigerlabs, a tech accelerator and incubator. Murphy said the state needs more of those to attract innovation, health care, biotechnology, logistics and advanced manufacturing businesses.

Murphy said New Jersey has 15 business incubators compared to New York’s 179.

“As the state that’s home to world-class universities and some of our brightest minds, that’s just embarrassing,” Murphy said. “I will make New Jersey the easiest state to do business in, and I’ll make sure that entrepreneurs have the backing to start their firms here.”

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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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