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A student center at Rutgers University at Camden, one of the public institutions that would benefit from the guarantee

Wikimedia Commons/henry montesino

New Jersey is the latest state to create a tuition-free program for four-year institutions.

Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, announced the Garden State Guarantee in his 2020 state budget. It would add more than $50 million to the state's outcomes-based funding formula so four-year public colleges can provide up to two years of free tuition. The plan, if approved, wouldn't start until fall 2021.

It’s a step in the right direction, advocates say. But by focusing on tuition costs, they said the program excludes other essential costs of attending college.

The new program could also impact institutions in nearby states, as New Jersey is one of the nation's biggest exporters of college students. If those institutions have to compete harder to get students, it could lead to further discounting, a practice many in higher education criticize.

The guarantee is limited to students with household incomes of $65,000 or less. All students would get predictable pricing from the deal, meaning they will be locked in at the initial tuition prices at public colleges for a full four years.

It builds on New Jersey's Community College Opportunity Grants, which made community colleges tuition-free for up to three years for students below a certain income threshold.

The governor’s office wanted the guarantee to be comparable to the community college program so it would be easy for students to understand, said Zakiya Smith Ellis, secretary of education for New Jersey. And transfer students can use both programs to get two free years at a community college and then finish, tuition-free, at a four-year college.

Funding for the guarantee will come from the state's general appropriations, Smith Ellis said. She is hopeful that future administrations will be supportive of the program.

“We think this is something that should have broad bipartisan support,” she said.

During a news conference at William Paterson University on Wednesday, Murphy joked that the state of Maine gets an assist for this program.

“I was so sick of seeing their billboard that said, ‘Our out-of-state tuition is cheaper than your in-state tuition,’” he said.

This guarantee could have some consequences for other states and colleges, however unintended, said Robert Massa, an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California and vice president emeritus of enrollment at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, though he emphasized that he thinks it’s a wonderful program.

Selective institutions often will cover tuition for students who fall below the $65,000 income threshold, so the difference between attending a public New Jersey college and a selective college anywhere else may not be large, he said.

“Here’s the catch: low-income students need to know that,” Massa said.

Unless they have good college counseling and understand how financial aid works, Massa said it’s likely those students will just go with the free in-state options. Because low-income students tend to go to underfunded public K-12 schools, which tend to place large caseloads on counselors, it’s likely they won’t have much guidance.

Many institutions, both public and private, aggressively pursue out-of-state students, he said. A recent study from New America found that public institutions have greatly increased their merit aid to recruit students, leading to a “merit arms race.”

“Any state institution that depends on New Jersey for a good portion of its out-of-state population is going to address it. They’re not going to sit back,” Massa said. “If past practices are indicators of future response, then it’s likely those institutions will increase discounts to those students in order to maintain enrollments.”

And discounting, he said, has gotten out of control and often leads to higher prices for everyone.

On the other hand, institutions often try to capture wealthier out-of-state students who may not be eligible for the guarantee program anyway.

A key point of the guarantee is that the money would go to institutions, with the mandate that they provide tuition-free education to the students who meet the criteria. Once the colleges fulfill that duty, though, they can use the rest of the funds for other programs.

Because several colleges in New Jersey already have affordability programs for low-income students, Smith Ellis believes they could use these funds for wraparound services.

“For so long, people have talked about state disinvestment and that being a key root of why tuition has increased,” Smith Ellis said.

This is the state’s attempt to rectify that, she said.

The program is a great move to help the students who need it the most, said Tiffany Jones, senior director of higher education policy at the Education Trust.

“We understand, when introducing a new program, if they don’t have all the resources, they have to make tough choices,” Jones said. “Our response to that is that’s a great start, but that’s not enough.”

Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, also commended the program but called it just a start.

"The Garden State Guarantee is a step in the right direction for states looking to prioritize limited state resources for the students that need the most support," she said in a statement. "While IHEP would prefer to see even greater public investment from state and federal governments to help students from low-income backgrounds to afford both tuition and nontuition expenses, the guarantee's intentional focus on promoting access for students of limited means is quite promising."

Jones added that she was happy to see policy makers follow through and actually expand on the initial community college grants.

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