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A Sign of Progress

New Jersey's Community College Opportunity Grant.

March 1, 2021

Last week featured a strange set of news stories crashing into each other, none of which got the coverage I thought they deserved. In my own state, the following three things happened last week.

  1. Marijuana was legalized for adult use
  2. The Muppet Show got “inappropriate content” warnings
  3. “Free community college” became law

If you had told me 10 years ago that those three things would have happened in the same week, I would have laughed out loud. Yet, here we are.

I’ll focus on the third one.

Governor Murphy signed the Community College Opportunity Grant into law on Friday. It had already existed for a couple of years, but as a budget line item; now it’s a statute. That means that unless another statute gets passed to repeal it, we can count on it in future budgets. From a planning perspective, that’s a very big deal.

The CCOG is a means-tested, last-dollar version of free community college. It applies to students taking between six and 18 credits in a semester and who are in good academic standing. They have to have a family adjusted gross income of $65,000 per year or less, which is below the median household income for the state. It fills in the gap between other forms of financial aid (such as Pell) and the total cost of tuition and fees; that means it still requires students to fill out a FAFSA, and it doesn’t address living expenses. Students can use it for up to five full-time semesters, or the equivalent, and it is available for summers. It also comes with a de facto price control on colleges, capping annual increases at 3 percent. (Colleges can go above that, but the CCOG won’t cover the overage.)

From an institutional perspective, it sets aside some funds for capacity building in the areas of recruitment and improved student success. The legislation specifically mentions provision for student basic needs (such as food pantries) and help with financial aid applications (through FAFSA navigators) as allowable uses of those funds. We’ve been using FAFSA navigators for years, with real success.

Mercifully, unlike the free community college programs in a certain neighboring state I’m too polite to mention, it doesn’t come with a postgraduation residency requirement. Education should be about empowerment rather than tying the peasants to the land; I’m glad that New Jersey recognizes that.

It’s a political compromise, but by and large, a very good one. Longtime readers know that I’m no fan of income caps -- especially at that level in this state -- but it’s a nod to one view of political reality. The income cap will keep the initial cost down, and there’s nothing preventing the state from adjusting the cap upward over time. Making the program last dollar means that the state isn’t leaving federal Pell money on the table, which is good, even though it means that folks still have to wrestle with the FAFSA. The five-semester limit creates an incentive for colleges to shorten developmental course sequences, which is mostly a good idea anyway. (I’m less sanguine about the fit of a five-semester cap with the needs of English language learners. ESL and ESOL remain awkward fits with many financial aid policies.) The price cap is a predictable safeguard against wild tuition increases, though it would be nice if it also came with a guarantee of reasonable increases in state operating aid. This one will be our first in 12 years. If we have years of flat aid, combined with price controls, we’d be in for some rough sledding.

Still, even acknowledging the limitations and qualifiers, the CCOG has the considerable virtue of having passed the Legislature and being signed into law. It will make community college more accessible to students who need it the most. It’s a vote of confidence in community colleges -- thank you for that -- and it takes a major obstacle out of the way for people whose families make too much for Pell but not enough for tuition. That’s a lot of people.

I’ll leave the commentary on marijuana and Muppets to others. But for this, I’ll just say that I recognize progress when I see it. This is progress. Thank you, Governor Murphy.


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