Could newly codified NJ program offer a model for free community college?

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy last week signed legislation that makes permanent a state program covering community college tuition and fees for students whose households earn $65,000 or less annually. Officials told POLITICO that the Community College Opportunity Grant (CCOG) program’s unique approach not only increases New Jersey students’ access to higher education but also could provide a national model for tuition-free community college.

Speaking at Hudson County Community College, Murphy reiterated his enthusiasm for CCOG, which began in 2019 as a pilot program at 13 of the state’s 19 county colleges. “From day one, our commitment as an administration has been to ensure no deserving student should be shut out of a future that a community college education can help because of a tuition bill,” he said.

Covering a broader range of students, expenses

When first launched, the CCOG program covered tuition and fees for students from households with an adjusted gross income of $45,000 or less. In the ensuing years, the program expanded to include all 19 New Jersey county colleges, participation increased by 140 percent, and the income eligibility threshold rose to $65,000. 

CCOG uses a “last-dollar” model, covering expenses that remain after students have applied all other available grants and scholarships. Students are eligible to use CCOG grants for up to five semesters. More than 10,100 students received funding from the program in fall 2020, and Murphy included $27 million for CCOG in this year’s budget proposal.  

According to POLITICO, New Jersey’s CCOG program differs from other states’ “college promise” efforts in several ways. First, CCOG applies not just to students’ community college tuition but also to related fees, including lab, facility, activity, and technology costs. CCOG is available to adult learners, not just recent graduates; more than 55 percent of CCOG recipients are working adults. The program also welcomes part-time students, as long as they take at least six credits, and is not restricted to students with certain majors, career tracks, or grade point averages. 

Zakiya Smith Ellis, New Jersey’s former secretary of higher education, and David Socolow, executive director of the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, say that when they designed CCOG, they knew the explicit promise of tuition-free college was crucial. The CCOG program, they say, helps families get past sticker shock and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), unlocking crucial grants and scholarships and increasing access to community college.    

Smith Ellis and Socolow say that wraparound services also are crucial. Insider NJ reports that Murphy’s new legislation directs state lawmakers to appropriate funds for a Student Success Initiative, which will support outreach and programs to ensure CCOG recipients thrive at New Jersey’s county colleges.

Proposed partner program for four-year public institutions

In addition to increased funding for community colleges, Murphy’s latest proposed budget includes $50 million for a CCOG partner program called the Garden State Guarantee. Under the proposal, students from households with income of $65,000 or less could attend the state’s public four-year colleges and universities tuition-free for two years. 

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